We all love a continuous symphony of flowers in our gardens. Yet sometimes our gardens can seem patchy in appearance with not much in bloom at one time, or that lasts through the summer and fall. It is possible to achieve continuous floral bloom using a method called succession planting.
The late Christopher Lloyd, longtime garden columnist, author of many books and gardener of the famous English garden Great Dixter, used the term to describe planting a variety of plants in a flower border that bloom in succession throughout a long season, so that it will always have interest. He used and combined annuals, bulbs, perennials and shrubs in this effort for constant bloom. Photos of the same border in his garden — from early spring through summer and fall — are strikingly different, yet filled with bloom and interest. Succession planting is very rewarding, and there are a few simple techniques for success.
The basic premise is to combine plants together that bloom in different seasons and don’t interfere with one another. Include early season bloomers, midseason bloomers, and late season bloomers all together in your flower border or garden. As one plant declines, the one next to it will grow and flower. For example, early blooming bulbs or plants like Oriental poppies basically go dormant after flowering. Summer blooming plants like catmint, calamint and Aster ‘Monch’ really fill out and bloom beginning in June. Their foliage and flowers will cover the spaces that bulbs and spring bloomers created as the foliage declines. Include late summer and fall blooming plants like California fuchsia, asters and perennial sunflowers for a late season show. Their foliage looks fresh all summer, and in fall they contribute showy flowers. Many Salvias bloom in summer though fall, too. Some, like the greggii types, peak in spring and again in fall.
Another key to this method of planting is to plant in small groups, the truth being that a large swath of something out of bloom is often unattractive. Large and medium-sized plants can be used in groups of one; small plants in groups of no more than three. Repeat these plants in your garden as often as you like or as you have room for. When plants are repeated in a garden it develops pattern and repetition, something that we all respond to, and brings the garden together visually. If the plant is hummingbird friendly, the hummers love it also.
Select plants for your garden that all look good together. You can create an all-gray garden, or a garden of bright colored plants, or pastels. If selected plants all look good together, deciding what should be planted next to what will not be a hard choice, except for taking into consideration the plant’s height and width so they are an adequate distance apart. Dark-colored foliage, like those of the ‘Mystic Series’ dahlias, works well to both absorb hot colors and set them off, while gray foliage combines and sets off pastels.
Plant closely enough so foliage intermingles. If plants are planted so far apart that there is more mulch or soil than plants, a plant that is out of condition will really stand out. If plants’ foliage is intermingling, you will hardy notice a plant out of bloom.
For early season and added summer interest, include bulbs and some annuals in the garden. For the spring garden, when perennials are still small and coming out of dormancy, plant some of our smaller native annual wildflowers in between them to fill space and give early bloom. Clarkias, Phacelia minor and P. campanularia are good choices. Shirley poppies and breadseed poppies can be used for this purpose also. The spent annuals are easy to pluck from the border when they are finished. Zinnias, ageratum, celosia and amaranth are excellent summer annuals to put in spaces in between the perennials while they are small. Include spring blooming bulbs like grape or Spanish hyacinth, ixia, sparaxis or Camas lilies, and summer bloomers such as gladiolas or lilies. In summer the tall bulbs rise through perennials foliage, look stunning, and will add much color and interest.