Cluster Theory – In Garden Design

Create a Cluster

Phlox-drift-Joe-Pye

I can probably give you scores of gardens doing cluster theory design…

but the idea of grouping plants in clusters is based on how pollinators utilize a garden. To build a garden for bees for instance, one must think like a bee. And bees like flowers, lots of them. Bees like herbs too.

Cluster-of-perennials

Bees come in different sizes, from very small to the size of big bumblebees, different also is their feeding behaviors. Their flight ranges vary too. Some bees can fly almost a mile from their nest, while tiny ground-nesting bees may travel only a few hundred feet. Bees may visit hundreds of individual flowers each forage, so clustering nectar and pollen producers saves them time and energy. Pollen and nectar provide the complete diet for both the adult bees and their larvae.

My own garden has many flowers but not huge drifts.  Size matters in whether a garden can have variety and large drifts of bloom. Gardens like mine with variety of bloom do have an advantage though, they have the widest range of plants with the most diversity of bees visiting. I can attest to that.

Cluster-Butterfly-Garden

In the case of honeybees, the garden will be more attractive to them if you plant clusters of the same type of flowers instead of a wide variety of flowers spread all over. Bees just favor large patches rather than single flowers here and there. I like to attract many different pollinators so I have many different flowers, but not one here and there. Small flower patches and duplicated patches are in my garden, so I do get honeybees.

humingbird-Mint

Plants of the composite family like asters are bee favorites and provide both nectar and pollen. They have a large landing platform making it easy to collect pollen while sipping nectar. A garden should have plants in the Asteraceae (Compositae) and Lamiaceae  (Mint) family to make foraging for bees as easy as possible. I don’t mulch my garden except with compost, therefore encouraging ground-nesting bees.

Pollinators

Annuals and non-native plants are players in the garden for when the perennials rest. My favorites are cosmos, zinnia, Caryopteris, Perovskia, and verbena.

Another aspect of cluster theory utilizes containers, where a single container incorporates a variety of plants, both perennial and annual.  While a container of a single plant works just fine, a mix of plants brings in a variety of pollinators, just like it does in the garden, only on a small-scale. I mix both perennials and annuals to keep the bloom throughout the season and shown in the gallery above. More of my containers in the post Container Gardening up soon.

Below is an example of cluster theory using herbs. A herb garden is an excellent choice for helping bees to save energy by having many of their favorites in one place.

Herbs-in-the-garden

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About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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18 Responses to Cluster Theory – In Garden Design

  1. I never considered that concept before. How you cluster plants can make a difference for pollinators.

  2. Such lovely cottage gardens. Love summer blossoms and how they can create carpets of color. Filled with things birds love. Wonderful captures.

  3. susurrus says:

    I’m a fan of your approach to gardening. I’ve been musing on clump-type planting (using several plants of the same variety to make small or large drifts) compared to planting in mixed drifts (by mingling several varieties of flowering plants together – a bit like a meadow planting, but with cultivated plants) since visiting Hampton Court and Tatton Park flower shows this summer. Mixed drifts seem to be fashionable at the shows, perhaps because they are so graceful and effective, especially in a small place.

  4. It is fascinating to see the preferences of various pollinators in action. This post is helpful in showing the benefits of swaths of a plant vs. great variety in a garden. It’s also fun to watch the plant mixes and pollinator activity change from month to month. Some plants and collections of plants seem to be loved by all pollinators for a long stretch of the season.

  5. Jardin says:

    As always, a really thoughtful post that makes reassess the way in which we garden.
    Many thanks!

  6. A.M.B. says:

    Interesting post! I plant flowers in clusters because I like the way it looks and it’s easier for me to deal with fewer varieties of plants. We’re having such a fun time in our garden this summer. I’m so glad we finally decided to go for it.

    The pictures are beautiful!

  7. Donna, you always know how to brighten my day with the beauty you share but also with all this very useful information! Wishing you a beautiful Sunday and week ahead! 🙂

  8. debsgarden says:

    Your gorgeous images of cluster gardening also point out another truth: Swaths of flowers are pleasing to us humans, too! I planted a single ‘Baby Joe’ Eupatorium, just to see how it would do. Now I am about to rip out a caryopteris that is doing poorly, being the last straggling survivor of a group of them, and I am going to replace with a cluster of the Eupatorium, which is flourishing but looks silly by itself.

  9. This is useful and I have been worried about the lack of bees seen in the heat of July and August as there the range of wild flowers is now limited to wild carrot and a yellow mullein. There are now different butterflies and a variety of wasps. But my friend has now got a really good mix of cultivated and wild in her garden and big black bees! Yours looks so beautifully un arranged!

  10. Alisha says:

    what a beautiful cottage garden , you presented very well for clustering garden, love your concept…thanks for sharing Donna ..

  11. Bees and I love the same plants with big, bold, and beautiful flowers—great post.

  12. A very interesting post with great photos. I am sure bees and other nectar and pollen collectors appreciate cluster planting as well as us humans.

  13. bittster says:

    I like that photo of the liatris backlit, really nice!
    Would you say nature usually clusters as well? Most wild plantings if they’re doing well will spread into drifts. Myself I like your plan of small patches repeated. I always find myself doing that as I plant things.
    The containers look particularly nice this year, I like the mixes. Not to say some of your massive baskets of flowers from last year weren’t nice, but I like the blends too. They seem a little more artistic.

  14. Wonderful website. I live in Nova Scotia six months a year and wild flowers abound! I love the fields of lupines.

  15. Your garden Is gorgeous as usual, especially that last picture. I never used the word cluster, but I think the effect is the same whether you call it a clump or a small drift.

    • Hi Jason. I only answered your comment because I do not know which post it is in reference. My current post is not my garden and neither is this one. I only showed my mixed-containers to also show cluster design on a small scale. The last photo is of a huge herb garden complete with potting shed, not my garden. The term cluster might be a design word rather than a common garden term. It is not a cluster for “humans”, but for pollinators. The reasoning is based on clustering plants the bees use for food and conserving their energy while collecting it. I would not refer to a planting as a clump unless I was digging it out, like daylilies for instance. Also, drifts by nature are large swaths or sweeps of the same plant flowing into the next grouping of another plant. It is usually a restricted palette of plants too. Drifts have a natural feel. The images in the post have a restricted palette of plants, but they are not what I would consider drifts, but rather clusters.

  16. Annette says:

    Such inspiring pics, Donna. I don’t have huge drifts either because as a plantaholic I find it hard to restrict myself to just a couple of species. I love lushness and variety and the bees seem to love it too which is the main thing. From the design point of view generous drifts certainly work better but you’ll need the space as well to make it really work.

  17. With my larger garden I have a variety of plants in some beds and then larger drifts more toward the wild areas in the back….great advice to help our pollinator friends.

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