When I first started gardening, I carefully selected plants from glossy catalogs (there was no “online” back then), and was inspired by the gardens shown in magazines. I grew everything that caught my fancy, divvying it up into three beds—two in sun and one in shade. And I wondered why my garden didn’t look as fantastic as the gardens in the magazines.
I planted lots of lilies, flowering tobacco, marigolds, roses, and lamb’s ears. In another bed I grew sunflowers and sweet peas, tulips and daffodils. It took years before I realized why, although the flowers were beautiful, the garden looked like a turbulent mishmash.
It’s simple once you know the secret: The most beautiful gardens don’t rely on flowers. They feature plants that enhance the drama of the bodacious flowers simply by just being green and healthy. So now, when I plant something grown for its flowers, I consider its foliage and I pick out its companions.
Ugly duckling below the neck, beautiful swan above, the lily is a plant that cries out for company. Some Lilium grow stems from three to six feet tall before unfurling their colorful trumpets. One of the newer hybrids, called Orienpets, is a cross between Orientals and trumpet lilies. They’re easy to grow, seldom need to be staked, are sometimes fragrant and get better every year.
There is no denying the beauty of a lily, but a lily with Liatris? The contrast of fuzzy purplish spikes standing shoulder to shoulder with the smooth and brilliant lily flowers is an easy feat if you know what to plant.
Lilium ‘Sweetheart’ is an Orienpet with bi-colored flowers of mango yellow and apple red. Accent this fragrant three to four-footer with Salvia ‘Cherry Chief’ autumn sage, which starts blooming in earnest after the lilies are finished.
Lilium ‘Conca d’Or’ is an award-winning lily that grows from four to five feet tall before opening its soft butter yellow trumpets. Plant it near the peonies that have finished flowering and adjacent to Liatris ‘Kobold’, which reaches just under three feet. An alternative for any Lilium companion is the three-foot tall Salvia Van houttei in either deep red or orange.
Lilies of any shade look best with a complimentary backdrop. One of the best is Cotinus, or smokebush. I like Cotinus ‘Grace’ and ‘Royal Purple’, with their deep purple leaves that keep their own counsel until fall when shades of orange and red are added to their repertoire.
Coleus that are both tall and sun tolerant make great lily buddies—especially the varieties with solid-color leaves. ‘Redhead’ grows up to three feet tall, its sturdy stems bearing leaves of a solid red that will go with so many colors. Other solid colored performers include ‘Campfire’, a fiery orange, ‘Glinda’, deep reddish purple, and ‘Inferno’, a deep orange.