Q&A with Nancy J. Ondra, Author of “The Perennial Matchmaker”

By Shelley Pierce | September 4, 2016
Image by Rodale
by Shelley Pierce
September 4, 2016

Nancy J. Ondra has been a hands-on gardener for over 30 years now, designing and working in her own gardens as well as those of others, and has been writing books about various aspects of gardening for over 25 years. She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she currently maintains a 4-acre homestead with a wide variety of ornamental and edible plantings, as well as meadows and wooded areas for wildlife and pastures for Duncan and Daniel, her alpaca companions.  She writes about her favorite plants, combinations, and other gardening topics on her blog, Hayefield; sells seeds from her garden on Etsy; and maintains an extensive gallery of plant-combination images on Pinterest.

In Nancy’s recent release, “The Perennial Matchmaker“, she helps you to jump-start your perennial garden with her one-plant-at-a-time approach for choosing plant partners and shares her extensive experience for creating eye-catching color combinations, dramatic textural displays, and stunning seasonal effects.  Read on for more information about this in-depth guide!

What are some stand-out features of your book that make it a definitive resource for those looking to create stunning plant medleys?

Beautiful photographs are an outstanding source of inspiration for stunning plant combinations, and The Perennial Matchmaker is packed with them””nearly 400 images! Sometimes, though, trying to replicate combinations that you see in a picture can be frustrating if you can’t find the same plants, or if they don’t thrive in your particular climate or growing conditions. In The Perennial Matchmaker, I guide you through the thought process behind creating your own custom combinations. Once you understand what makes for a good combination with perennials, you can expand those ideas to include annuals, bulbs, shrubs, and other plants as well. So, instead of being limited to just a few hundred partnerships, your possibilities are essentially endless! The Perennial Matchmaker also covers some topics rarely mentioned in other books, such as how to care for fantastic combinations once you have them and how to fix plant partnerships that didn’t quite work out as you hoped they would.
What are some of your favorite perennial pairings?

In the introduction to The Perennial Matchmaker, I include a gallery of “Nan’s Top 10 Favorite Perennial Pairings,” showcasing some of my favorites to date. In general, I gravitate toward making combinations with foliage as a key feature, because leaves are so much more dependable than flowers. Good-looking leaves make for a good-looking garden, no matter what the weather; when the flowers come along, they’re a wonderful bonus. I enjoy strong color contrasts but also like to work with “color echoes”: repeating the leaf or bloom color of one plant in the foliage or flowers of another.  If I’m looking for a partner for a white-edged hosta, for instance, I’ll often choose a perennial partner with white flowers to create a visual color link between the two.

Color is the sole attribute I compare/contrast when trying to come up with plant combinations.  How does your book lead us into taking a more multi-dimensional approach when matchmaking plants?

I too tend to think of color first when planning perennial pairings, but if that’s the only feature you consider, it’s easy to end up with disappointing results when you look at the bed or border as a whole. The flowers may all be similar in shape or height, for instance, or they may all bloom in one seasonal spectacle and have little interest for the rest of the year. That’s why it’s important to also consider features such as varying heights, leaf and flower shapes, and seasons of interest, as I cover in detail in Part 2: “Perennial Matchmaking: Exploring More Options.”


I have an existing bed that is a hapless hodge-podge of plants.  How does your book help me to transform my perennial beds so that they are more cohesive and aesthetically pleasing?

Most folks who have been gardening for a few years already have the makings for photo-worthy combinations: It’s often simply a matter of doing a bit of reorganizing to make the most of your existing plants. The main part of The Perennial Matchmaker is a plant-by-plant guide to over 80 genera (and many hundreds of species and cultivars), where you can look up the perennials you currently have thriving in your yard and get ideas for ways you can reorganize them to complement each other.

That doesn’t mean you have to dig everything up, though. I’d suggest focusing on a few of your garden stars at first: those that are already well-established, or that you know are stunning every year. Look them up in Part 1 of The Perennial Matchmaker to get ideas of potential partners, then consider what you might already grow that you could move at the appropriate time to complement those key plants.

The first year, think about simple pairings: two plants that bloom beautifully at the same time, or that have complementary leaf and flower colors. Once you work out a few pairings you’re really pleased with, then start adding one or two partners to each of those, with an eye to adding some harmony and some contrast to the first two plants. Say you have a stunning dark-leaved heuchera, for instance, and you moved a maroon-and-silver Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) next to it, to repeat the color of the heuchera leaves but contrast with their broad shape. Next year, you might add some ‘White Nancy’ spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum), with silvery leaves that will repeat the color in the fern fronds but add a contrast of size and shape with both the fern and the heuchera. Each year after that, you can add more complementary companions around the original pairing, with the goal of eventually filling the whole bed or border with a series of lovely combinations.


What are some of your best tips/advice for those planning a spectacular perennial garden?

It’s fine to look at photographs in print or online to get inspired, but don’t get your heart set on repeating those exact combinations, because you may not be able to find or grow those particular plants. Your best resources are local ones: tours of private gardens in your town, for instance, where you can see which plants thrive in your area and find out where the gardeners got them. (Gardeners tend to be generous folks, so they may even be willing to share some with you!) Nurseries and garden centers with display gardens””actual in-ground plantings, not just beautiful displays of potted perennials””are also great for ideas of combinations that can work in your own garden. If you like getting gardening ideas online, look for websites and blogs that are written by gardeners in your own region.

Also, try to resist the urge to acquire the very newest perennial introductions, especially if your garden is relatively new. Instead, invest in some of the less-expensive but time-tested “workhorses”–older cultivars of daylilies and hostas, for instance””and challenge yourself to make interesting combinations with them. After a few years, once you’ve gotten some confidence with choosing companions, you can start adding more rare or unusual perennials to complement those dependable favorites.

And, as I mentioned before, consider foliage features as well as flowers. Leaves that come in colors other than green can be as valuable as flowers in creating a beautiful border.

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