What Placeholder Plants Can Do For You

– Posted in: Design, How-to

When I finally grasped the concept of placeholder plants, it changed my life. Well, what I mean is, it reduced my garden maintenance load and I enjoyed my garden more, with less work. Not precisely life-changing, but definitely life-improving.

What the heck are placeholder plants?

A placeholder plant is a garden-worthy plant that you happen to have a lot of, which you plant in your garden until you find something you like better to grow in its place. Furthermore, it’s a plant that is easily removed once its time in the garden is over. Let’s go over that in more detail.

A garden-worthy plant–it’s not a weed. People grow it in their gardens on purpose. It’s probably “common” and maybe not exciting, brand-new, or improved, but it grows without much fuss and looks pretty.
You have a lot of it–You have a lot of it because you have the right soil conditions and climate so that it’s happy in your garden. It may be one of those plants that “everyone has” and so it was passed along to you. It may happily self-sow in your garden. It may spread to make a large patch. But . . .
It’s easily removed–It’s shallow-rooted and does not come back from every teensy bit of root left in the ground. This is key. There are plenty of plants that wind up in gardens that spread or self-sow rampantly and are not easily removed. We call these weeds–or worse.

How can placeholder plants help me in the garden?

When you start a new garden, renovate an old garden, or have a spot suddenly open up due to a plant dying, you may not know exactly what you want to put in every square inch of it. Or the plants are small and need to grow and fill in the space. You plant your placeholder plant in that area until a better plant comes along.

Here’s an example

Perhaps you remember this garden bed from my “tour” last year:

flower bed early June

This bed behind the deck was just getting started last year.

You can see there is a lot of empty space around the plants. Every time I found a solid purple Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor) in another part of the garden, I moved it to this bed. I moved perhaps a dozen plants and evenly spaced them throughout the bed.
garden bed filled with violas

By June of this year, this bed was chock-full of Johnny-jump-ups.

Now that is both good and bad. It’s good because every place a Johnny-jump-up grew, a weed didn’t grow. It’s bad because the cute little plants filled up every available space and obscured the other plants. You couldn’t see the garden for the violas. I wanted to plant more flowers in this bed, I knew there was room for them, but I just couldn’t see where.
10 cu ft weeds in a gorilla cart

So I pulled those Johnny-jump-ups out. More than 10 cu. ft. of them

fully weeded deck west

And the garden looked more like a garden, and I could see where I could fit in my plants.

Pulling all those violas might sound like a lot of work, but it was a lot easier than pulling weeds. And I chose to pull them all. I could have just removed them from one section, if that’s all I wanted to plant. And of course, even though I felt the violas obscured the outlines of the other plants, they still looked more attractive than the weeds they suppressed.

Another example

big betony replaces geranium

I removed some big-root geraniums so I could plant this piece of big betony.

The betony (Stachys macrantha) wasn’t blooming well in its old location.
yanked bigroot geraniums

I yanked out a bunch of the geraniums (Geranium macrorrhizum) to make room for the betony.

I had planted little bits of the geranium a couple of years ago while I figured out what I wanted to plant in that area. They do a great job of keeping the weeds away. In this case I only ripped out enough geraniums to give the betony the space it needs. I need to keep an eye on the remaining geraniums to make sure they don’t overwhelm the betony. They will come out more easily than the equivalent amount of dandelions.

What are some other good placeholder plants?

Sheffield chrysanthemum

Single hardy mums, such as Sheffield pink chrysanthemum.

Sundrops Oenothera fruticosa

Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa)

Seed grown dianthus

Perennial dianthus

pink breadseed poppies dusky sedum

Annual poppies


Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

plus various other hardy geraniums, bugleweed (ajuga), and probably other plants that I’m forgetting.

What’s the catch?

The catch is, you have to remember that they’re just placeholders. After a while, your eye gets used to them and skips over them when you’re looking for a spot for the plant in your hand. And then, you have to have the willpower to pull them out. I love Johnny-jump-ups. They’re so sweet. I had to remind myself that they were leggy and on their last blooms. Pretty soon they would be nothing but seedheads and wan stems.

Pulling perfectly good plants out of the ground and throwing them on the compost pile is not for the faint of heart or novice gardeners. Sometimes I pot up a few for garden club plant sales or visitors to my garden, to ease the pain–but only a few. After all, if they’re placeholder plants, usually everyone already has them, and are getting rid of their extras at the plant sale. Conversely, if you have a new garden, shop the garden club plant sales for placeholder plants of your own. Or just beg some off your gardening friends with more established gardens.

I would much rather see a growing patch of chrysanthemums than a sea of mulch or a carpet of weeds, so using placeholder plants helped me establish gardens here without being overwhelmed. It has made me a more relaxed gardener–there are far fewer weeds. And since placeholder plants by definition are plants that thrive in my garden, I find I am surrounded by happy plants. And that makes me happy.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

Carrie J Leonard from Sawreviewed July 19, 2017, 10:27 pm

Hi, Kathy.
I heard this term “placeholder plants” for the first time. I think it is a very good idea. Easily replaceable and decorative. Thanks for the idea.

Tina Martino July 17, 2017, 6:12 pm

This is a wonderful post! I often use placeholder plants when I am setting up a new flower bed! Thank you for the great article!

Tina Martino

Diana Hall July 16, 2017, 3:53 pm

So nice seeing you today. Thank you for your generosity with the pass along plants. I am very excited to get them in the ground. I love your article about “placeholder plants” and was happy to add one to your bag of tricks.

Frank July 14, 2017, 10:52 pm

Sundrops are my placeholder plant of choice! I didn’t realize until today that’s what I’m doing with them, and it does work… as long as like you say, you remember to pull them up every now and then.

Jose P July 12, 2017, 4:36 pm

I am always looking for ways to prevent weeds from growing but have never heard of “placeholders”. What a great idea. Thank you for sharing this article with everyone!

commonweeder July 11, 2017, 7:52 am

Kathy – I hadn’t been using the term ‘place holder’ in my mind, but I have been making good use of place holders as we have been designing and planting our new town garden. This fall I will be doing a lot of digging when I do the cutting back because some of those place holders have had their day, and others just need to be divided and moved. The local plant sales will benefit in the spring too.

Betsy July 10, 2017, 11:45 am

Hi Kathy,

Another great blog. Along with “cabin fever beds”, “placeholder plants” is another of my favorite additions to my garden vocabulary!

Kathy Purdy July 10, 2017, 1:24 pm

Thank you, Betsy. I’m glad to improve your vocabulary.

Jane / MulchMaid July 10, 2017, 8:58 am

I love shopping in my own garden for place-holder. One of my favorites is Carex buchanani. It loves my garden, self-seeds politely, and helps to unify the garden when I use it throughout the various beds. Win-win!

Kathy Purdy July 10, 2017, 1:23 pm

I had to look that one up. It sounds like it’s only hardy to Zone 6, and I am Zone 5. But I might snap one up anyway if I found it for a good price at a plant sale, based on your recommendation.

Dee Nash July 10, 2017, 8:48 am

Good name for these hard workers in the garden. The important thing is that they are easily moved when you need them elsewhere. Great post.~~Dee

Linda from Each Little World July 10, 2017, 8:37 am

What a great way to deal with those bare spots I tend to leave in the garden while I think about what to put there.

Layanee DeMerchant July 10, 2017, 7:59 am

Well done. It is all about editing the borders at this time of year isn’t it. Mother Nature hates bare ground so I have employed this method many times but never thought of that term before. Nice!

Jane Rutkowski July 10, 2017, 7:21 am

Hi Kathy,
Great post. I never thought of certain plants as being “placeholder plants” before, but definitely makes sense. I love Johnny-jump-ups, too, but as you say, they do get scraggly and just don’t seem worth the effort.