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What big plants can do for a small garden

Hungarian Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus hungaricus)

It may seem counterintuitive, but big, bold, architectural plants are a natural fit for small gardens. It took me a while to discover the power of planting a whopping great specimen in my small-space garden. For years, I scoured the nurseries for dwarf varieties, packing them into narrow borders and tiny corners. But these diminutive plants only seemed to make the garden look smaller.

Then I planted Hungarian Bear's Breeches (Acanthus hungaricus), which grows up to a metre or more, and gave it plenty of space. The large, spiny leaves and towering, hooded flower spikes of this dramatic perennial stopped visitors in their tracks. And in a small garden, that's exactly what you want to do. The idea is to slow things down; the longer it takes to walk through a garden, the more expansive it seems.

All you need is one brazen showstopper. But since plants like these are such attention seekers, you need to surround them with others worth looking at. Seek out plants with colourful foliage, such as one of the hundreds of coral bells (Heuchera), or the umbrella-like flowers of yarrow with its ferny foliage, which contrasts with the spiky leaves of the Acanthus. These should help integrate a showy plant into the garden, so choose ones of various heights.

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Large plants in small gardens can also screen the view beyond it. The Acanthus in my garden stands at the end of a sunny border, partially obscuring the small woodland garden behind it. Its position means the entire garden is revealed gradually rather than being exposed all in one glance – another trick that creates the sense of a larger landscape.

Large plants needn't be confined to garden beds. Use them in containers strategically placed to screen a seating area on a patio or terrace. Exotic tropicals such as Giant Elephant Ears (Alocasia), canna lilies with variegated or dark, coloured leaves and grassy-leafed New Zealand Flax (Phormium) make a big impact in pots and planters, used either alone or combined with trailing annuals in contrasting colours.

Insider tip

Beth Edney of Designs by the Yard in Toronto loves to use Ligularia dentata "Britt-Marie Crawford." It has large, chocolate-coloured, ruffled and serrated leaves and clusters of daisy-like yellow flowers that can rise almost a metre above the foliage. When situating bold plants, Edney recommends placing them in an undulating pattern: Group them at the back of the border, for example, and another near the front or in the middle of the bed. "This creates a sense of space and depth."

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