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'Natural Companions': Artful book shows perfect plant combinations

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"Natural Companions: The Garden Lover's Guide to Plant Combinations," the new release from bestselling writer Ken Druse and artist Ellen Hoverkamp, rises above other books of its kind thanks to two elements: an authoritative, engaging narrative and botanical portraits that are nothing short of mesmerizing.

PHOTO GALLERY: "Natural Companions"

Using a large-format flatbed scanner, Hoverkamp has produced more than 100 botanical images with amazing depth, detail and color. She assembled the vignettes with a black background and scanned the plants as fast as she could before the just-picked petals, buds and blades had time to wilt.

You can open the book's pages to study Druse's advice for picking plants that will work well together in a patio container or a garden bed. But if you're like me, you will also gaze in awe at the almost three-dimensional quality of the luscious still-lifes.

The digital images can be seen in our photo gallery and are available as archival prints on Hoverkamp's website. You also can watch a video showing the scanning process.

The result is a hefty tome (256 pages) published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang. The 9-by-12-inch botanical prints are complemented by 100 plant and landscape portraits shot by Druse. These illustrate the many ways he (and fellow gardeners) organize their beloved plants in the garden by color, fragrance or foliage. Other design themes include grasses, edible flowers and regional growing conditions.

"It's a bit like a recipe book," Druse said. "Or like taking your color swatches to the fabric store. I wanted to show people which plants will bloom at the same time and thrive in the same conditions."

Author Druse is based in Brooklyn and New Jersey; Hoverkamp is in Connecticut. The collaborators cast a wide net when gathering the book's diverse selection of plants, including many West Coast specimens. For the edited Q&A, I asked Ken to share how this project was created and how he hopes it will be used.

What inspired you to create this book?

I met Ellen in 2005 at a gardening symposium where she was exhibiting her work. She produces photographs that have the quality of old-fashioned botanicals. That was the catalyst to do a project together because I knew the format could communicate planting design in an interesting, new way.

How did you choose these plant combinations?

I made lists and lists of specimens to tell the stories of plant combinations. To make the photographs, we used plants from my gardens and from collectors' gardens near where Ellen lives. Friends from around the country shipped us cuttings so we could feature settings from many regions.

What did you want to communicate with each portrait?

These portraits convey what happens in a garden at a moment in time. And to gardeners, those moments are precious. There are plants in my New Jersey garden, like my irises or the beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), that I very often miss because I'm in the city for a few days during a heat wave. I'm sure it was beautiful for its blooming season this year: three days in June. But I didn't get to see it.

How long did this project take?

We started in January 2010 and finished one year later. Sixty of the scans were made here at my New Jersey garden, mostly in my basement, where it's cool and relatively dark. Ellen made other scans in her studio, where she was able to hold some specimens in her refrigerator until she needed them. I cut night-blooming cereus, the flowers of which bloom at 11 p.m. and close by morning, and put them in jars of water in my refrigerator for Ellen to scan when she came to New Jersey the next day.

You describe a hierarchy to arranging plants in the landscape. Can you elaborate on this design technique?

The hierarchy isn't always which plant gets loved the most. It's more about organization. I start with the bones, the woody plants. And I place lower plants like ground covers in the front, with taller plants in the back. If it's a bed in the middle of the garden, I place taller plants in the center and work my way toward the edges. Plants in the mid-range are usually herbaceous.

You suggest that it's easy to rearrange the garden, moving plants around to better suit their companions or setting. What are some tips for actually doing this without harming the plant?

It may not be your fault if a plant isn't doing well. Perhaps the plant is just in the wrong place. If it's not blooming, maybe there's too much shade. If the leaves are crisping, it might be in too much sun. I'll try and grow anything at least twice. I keep a journal, and I take snapshots of plants I hope to rearrange. Then I plan the moves for late winter while the plants are resting. I'm careful about the timing, so I never do it on a hot day or when a tree is in bloom. I can't tell you the number of small trees I've dug and moved.

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