Garden Ideas: Cascades of Colours


Like most gardeners, I’m always on the lookout for new garden ideas that use plants in inspiring ways - especially if it enhances the overall design. If you want to add drama and the illusion of movement, one of my favourite design solutions is to create a plant cascade or living waterfall. Although they have been featured in many horticultural show gardens over the years, plant cascades have never really caught on. Perhaps this is because they seem a bit ‘arty’, or that they look very high maintenance - ideal for a high-impact, high-budget show garden designed to last a week or two, but not very practical in a family garden on a tight budget where gardening time is precious. But don’t be put off, because creating an authentic-looking cascade out of plants is very easy to do and a lot of fun. The cost shouldn’t hold you back either, since it can be achieved for the price of a tray of bedding or a few container plants that are often being sold cheaply at this time of year. I tried creating one myself recently, using half-a-dozen pot-grown marguerites set at staggered heights in mountain stream-like formation.

How to create a cascade

The secret to success is to choose plants that suit the conditions you have in your garden. Buy drought-tolerant, sun worshipers for sun-drenched patios and steps as well as well-drained rock gardens. On the other hand, go for plants that are well-adapted to low-light levels if you are creating a cascade in a shady spot. Under trees and next hedges and walls, the soil can be particularly dry, so take this into account when making your selection. You also need to plan the design of the cascade carefully, so that you get the right combination of plants for the effect you are trying to achieve. The easiest place to fashion a plant cascade is around existing features with a natural gradient, such as a rockery, raised bed or alongside a flight of steps. However, by choosing the right combination of plants, it is quite possible to recreate the essence of a flowing water feature on the flat.

Vertical cascades By placing a trough on top of a wall and attaching a second part-way down the vertical surface, you can plant a veil of trailing plants that flow seamlessly from one to the other, creating a cascade. Add a semi-circular bed directly underneath planted with matching bedding and a fountain-shaped phormium or ornamental grass in the middle - voilà! The plunge-pool effect is complete. Another option is to use several identical wall troughs or hanging baskets deliberately planted lop-sided with a cascading plant over one edge and a froth of flowers and foliage elsewhere. By positioning the containers in a stepped formation up a wall, so that the trailing plants appear to flow from one to the next, a striking cascade effect can be achieved.

Horizontal cascades On the flat, you can use naturally weeping trees and shrubs to provide the illusion of a cascade. To emphasise the effect, try planting a weeping tree in an island bed with a frothy groundcover of bedding to mimic a turbulent pool under a water-spout. In the border, try a climber trained up posts or into a tree or hedge. On a patio, a collection of different height, but otherwise identical, pots could be planted with matching trailers and clustered to look like a meandering stream.

Using natural gradients A slope makes life a lot easier when you are trying to create an authentic-looking stream out of plants. You could try a babbling brook of small-leaved ivy or periwinkle running through judiciously positioned logs down a shady slope, or torrent of silver and blue through a sun-drenched rockery. If you are ambitious, you could take the plunge and recreate an entire mountain stream using bedding in shades of blue white and silver. When planting, you might find it helps to imagine what a mountain steam would look like when painting by numbers, with turbulent strands and pools of colour, as it cascades down the slope. My top tip here is to arrange the plants still in their pots, stand back and reflect. Then make alterations as necessary until you have a design you like – only then commit plants to soil.