Plant Combos That Totally Nail Curb Appeal
Ready to dress up your front flower beds? Try these showy plant combos from Chicago landscape architect Pamela Self, who designs Michigan Avenue’s dazzling annual summer display.
Floral show along Michigan Avenue
Since 2015, landscape architect Pamela Self has been working alongside the Chicago Department of Transportation to design the floral extravaganza down Michigan Avenue. The 2.3-mile show begins at the Field Museum and extends north to the John Hancock Building. In late May, Self and her team join forces with a crew of 20 from A Safe Haven Landscaping Services—a social enterprise for at-risk youth, veterans and substance recovery individuals. Together, they work a dozen nights, often from 7 p.m. to as late as 4 a.m., installing more than 20,000 plants.
In the past six years, Self has learned the best eye-catching combos and top-performing plants to shine all season.
“Our plantings have to be impactful from Memorial Day to October,” says Self, who starts the previous fall with design concepts and selections for a plant palette of 35 to 40 varieties. She says the plants must withstand varying weather conditions, require no deadheading or pruning, and offer colorful flowers or foliage all season. Here are her favorite plant combos plus a few tips.
Self says larger tropical plants are more dramatic than finely textured ones. Try ‘Red Sister’ cordyline planted in masses here with ‘Marvel Gold’ marigolds (upper left), ‘Endurascape Pink’ verbena (lower left) and ‘Lucky Sunrise Rose’ lantana (lower right). Also, when purchasing tropicals like cannas and elephant ears, go with larger sizes. “What I’ve learned is tropicals don’t grow as fast as I’d like, so we start those in larger pots,” says Self.
Embrace bold colors
For the 30-mile-per-hour wow, choose bolder colors. Self says, one season, they tried a softer color pallette with white gaura, silver petunias and perwinkle verbena, but she says the combo didn’t have nearly the impact. She recommends more vivid bloomers like ‘Artful Heart’ caladium (upper left), ‘Cherry Jolt’ dianthus (below), ‘Megawatt Pink Bronze Leaf’ begonia (upper right) and ‘French Quarter’ coleus (upper center).
“These plantings are viewed from cars, sidewalks or buildings above, so we lean toward bold colors,” says Self.
Start with a background layer using plants 30” and taller. Next, add a mid-layer with plants ranging 18” to 24” in height. Finish with the foreground layer of trailers and plants 12” or less in height. Pictured here, Self uses ‘Red Sister’ corydline for the background layer, ‘Purple Magilla’ perilla for the mid-layer and ‘Endurascape Hot Pink’ verbena for the foreground layer.
For added interest, try interplanting annuals in two slightly different shades. For example, Self combines blue and purple ‘Endurascape’ verbena (pictured here) or purple and silver ‘Tidal Wave’ petunias.
Mix early and late bloomers
To sustain the color show through the season, Self interplants summer bloomers like ‘Landmark Sunrise Rose’ lantanas (front) with later stars like ‘Redhead’ coleus (back left), ‘Dark Angel Dracula’ dahlias (back center) and ‘New Zealand Purple’ castor beans (back right).
Self looks for plants that have colorful blooms and leaves. “We use 20 to 30 percent colorful foliage plants, so we’re not relying only on flowers,” says Self. ‘Lava Rose’ coleus (left), ‘Megawatt Rose’ wax begonias (center) and ‘Mahogany Splendor’ hibiscus (back right) are a few favorites.
At pedestrian crossings, plants must remain under 4” in height, so Self creates swirled or geometric patterns with ‘Clear Crystal Mix’ sweet alyssum and ‘Happy Trails Pink’ portulaca.
Bring color to shade
Not all spaces along Michigan Avenue are in full sun, so Self must select some shade-loving color combos. “Over the years we’ve come to understand the various areas – some shady concrete canyons, some windy corridors and some full-sun spots.” Here, she’s assembled ‘Freckles’ coleus and ‘Megawatt Red’ begonias under the shade of gingko trees.
To extend the show throughout the season, boost your plants’ performance with a slow-release fertilizer mixed in the soil at planting time. Also, make sure the soil stays consistently moist but not soggy throughout the hottest months.
Michigan Avenue is now a certified pollinator garden and features pollinator favorites like tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), ‘Blue Horizon’ ageratum and balloon plant (Gomphocarpus physocarpus). Monarch butterflies, birds, hummingbird moths and more flock to the floral oasis in the city. Self recommends interplanting the milkweed with other tall plants like cannas (pictured here), ‘Benary Giant’ zinnias or ‘Sunfinity’ helianthus, since the monarch caterpillars strip the leaves bare before forming their cocoons.
“Besides bringing a beautiful showcase to the city, these plantings play another valuable part in feeding pollinators and birds in this urban setting,” she says.
See the flowers in person
Wander down Michigan Avenue in summer to catch Self's beautiful displays in person. Here, the collection shows off 'Limelight’ hydrangea, ‘Cannova Lemon’ canna, ‘Double Zahara Yellow’ zinnia, ‘Belleza White’ guara, ‘Tidal Wave Silver’ petunia, and ‘Endurascape Purple’ verbena.