“The longer I garden, it seems, the less important a plant’s flower is in my estimation of its merits—though I haven’t yet attained the airy indifference of Russell Page, who dismissed flowers as so much ‘colored hay’.” Michael Pollan
Though foliage characteristics are often neglected in favor of showy flowers or fruit when choosing a plant, gardeners have begun to realize what a significant role foliage can play in the garden. As a result some elegant, striking, and even gaudy, foliage plants are showing up at garden centers.
Color and texture are two of the most important foliage characteristics.
Color, particularly, tends to catch our attention. Whether it’s chartreuse, purple, blue, variegated or mottled, brightly colored foliage offers a very striking accent in the landscape. Generally, plants with more vibrant foliage are reserved for specimens or for brightening dark corners. Rarely are they used extensively as a backdrop for the garden.
Unfortunately, many diseased plants are similar in coloring to chartreuse, yellow or variegated plants; which makes the line between looking “sickly” and “stunning” easy to cross. When experimenting with extreme color it’s best to start with annuals or perennials. Mistakes will reveal themselves more quickly and it’s easier to move or replace a small plant than a 15-year-old shrub. Keep in mind that green is a color too; use solid green foliage generously and other color sparingly.
Variations of grey and silver foliage occur naturally in drier parts of the country. They combine well with many shades of green and can be used in masses, making them very versatile in a landscape design. Gardens featuring silver and grey-toned plants are attractive and calming, and can offer a bright spot in the evening hours.
Leaf Size & Foliage Texture
Texture is another important component of designing with foliage. Offering a combination of textures can create variety in the garden, and a subtle contrast of texture is much more forgiving than the contrast of different colors. When viewed from a distance, the size of the leaves affects the “texture” of the design, with large leaves giving a coarse appearance and small foliage resulting in a fine-textured appearance. Using a variety of textures, fine-textured grasses alongside medium-textured roses, for instance, can add a lot of interest to the landscape.
For drama, the large leaves of an oakleaf hydrangea can be paired with coralberry or fine-textured grasses. Varying, contrasting and repeating leaf types can make a pleasing, coherent design. Nature offers an infinite variety of leaf shapes (oval, heart-shaped, narrow) and leaf surfaces (fuzzy, rough, puckered, sharp or shiny) that give plants personality. The soft foliage of lamb’s ear, for example, is almost irresistible not to stroke. Shiny-leaved plants catch the sunlight and contrast nicely with duller leaves. Cactus leaves add an unexpected prickle while keeping the wary pedestrian at bay.
Less is More
As with any good design, less is more. Pick a few plants to add boldness and contrast, and let the rest of the garden offer subtle repetitions and variations of a similar theme. Experimenting with foliage is a fun and easy way to enliven your garden.
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum is a nonprofit that works toward sustainable home and community landscapes through initiatives in education, public gardens and the environment. Plant and landscape resources at http://plantnebraska.org.