Five-Plant Gardens: a Book Review

Image of a monarch on a butterfly bush flower.
A monarch enjoying a butterfly bush flower. David Beaulieu
  • "Five-Plant Gardens" Offers 52 Ways to Grow a Simple Perennial Bed

    You can have a nice perennial bed (image) with just a few kinds of plants and a small space.
    You need neither a lot of space nor a lot of different kinds of plants to create a knockout perennial bed. David Beaulieu

    Two common requests readers of this landscaping website have go something like this:

    1. "Can you provide examples of perennial beds suitable for postage-stamp landscapes? I have a small space and want to plant it so that it looks great, but I have no idea how to begin."
    2. "I am new to landscaping and need very specific instructions for planting a perennial bed. Basically I need to be led by the hand. Can you offer any simple templates that just say, 'Put plant A in the ground, then...MORE install plant B next to it, etc.'?"

    Well, there is a tutorial designed for beginners who have small yards that is all about planting flower beds. But if you need more, Nancy J. Ondra wrote the perfect book to satisfy readers with requests of this sort. It is called Five-Plant Gardens (Storey Publishing, 2014). The concept of the book is pure genius and as simple as the title suggests. The book essentially consists of fifty-two mini-chapters. Each of these chapters (plant profiles) is comprised of the following parts:

    1. Pictures of the five plants in question
    2. A list of these plants specifying how many are needed, what growing zones they grow best in, and what alternate choices could be selected as substitutes
    3. A planting plan showing how the five perennials are to be arranged
    4. A description of the plants, season by season
    5. And a final segment that offers design and care tips

    At this point you may wonder: "Well, does the author just present 52 examples of five-plant combinations? That sounds neither very interesting nor very valuable." But no, there's more to it than that. In each case, it is not just any five perennials thrown together. Each grouping is based upon two considerations. The particular plants selected:

    •  All enjoy the same sunlight and soil conditions
    •  And/or they form a theme

    Themes vary from flowers that are all of one color to plants that attract a particular type of wildlife or are relatively resistant to a certain kind of pest (e.g., deer-resistant perennials).

    A Sampling of Featured Perennial Beds

    Now that you know the basic idea behind the book, let's look at some examples of planting plans that Ondra offers.

    1. A Moon Garden

    Moon gardens are gardens assembled with plants that have light-colored flowers and/or leaves. They are meant to be at their best in the evening. Ondra's five picks for her perennial moon garden are:

    1. 'David' garden phlox
    2. 'White Swan' coneflower
    3. Candytuft
    4. 'Snow Fairy' bluebeard
    5. Lamb's ears

    2. A Salt-Tolerant Garden

    Salt-tolerant plants are not just for people who live near the beach. Remember, if you live where there are snowy winters, the salt that city crews spread to clear roadways may be finding its way into your soil. The author selects the following handful of the salt-busters for this perennial bed:

    1. 'Silver Brocade' beach wormwood
    2. 'Creme Brulee' coreopsis
    3. 'Autumn Fire' sedum
    4. Cushion spurge
    5. 'Little Grapette' daylily

    3. A Butterfly Garden

    What is prettier in a butterfly garden, the "winged flowers," themselves or the plants that draw the butterflies? Hard to say, but the latter will certainly be around longer. Ondra's "Butterfly Banquet" consists of:

    1. Swamp milkweed
    2. Yarrow
    3. Pincushion flower
    4. Russian sage
    5. Coneflower

    Buy on

    All right, maybe you don't have time to order Ondra's book and read it. Need some ideas fast? Check out the pictures in my photo gallery, 15 Flower Borders That Sizzle.