Woman with trowel: In praise of foliage

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Emerging foliage of Rodgersia podophylla. Photo credit: M. Brehaut

Blooms often get the attention in a garden. They are hard to pass by – the blue of a himalayan poppy, the rose that evokes childhood memories, the late summer splendor of dahlias. I love them all. But wonderful things can be done with foliage, including a display that lasts longer than one relying solely on flowers.

A rose bush looks a bit sad in between flowering flushes, and there is a lot of waiting around until dahlias are ready to entertain. By adding plants with varying foliage I can design a garden that holds my attention in between the blooming periods.

Big can work well in a small urban garden. I use large perennials instead of shrubs for the big presence, mostly because I thought it would be fun. So I have Joe-Pye weed for the back bed height, rodgersia, ligularia and bear’s breeches for the impressive leaf size, and Black Lace elderberry for the big swaying branches. These all grow in full sun if watered well or part shade.

Carex testacea picking up orange tones of the blooming geum. Photo credi: M. Brehaut

I use dark heuchera to echo the leaf shape of the rodgersia while offering color contrast. I throw in some carexes for textural contrast. I add Karl Foerster grasses for height and lush movement. Dark bugbane and angelica catch the magic of the late daylight. All of these plants also offer blooms but it is the varied characteristics of their leaves that hold the design together.

Within this base of interest, I add my summer blooming plants. Geum and knautia bloom for months and the blooms are on long stems that intermingle and wander in a way that I find connects neighbouring plants. Coreopsis and potentilla add additional sparks of color. Without the big leafed plants, these small blooms would reduce the drama of the garden space and create a dreary kind of repetition. Foliage helps keep my garden vibrant.

Rodgersia with Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’ and crocosmia. Photo credit: M. Brehaut

The plants I have mentioned are for the sunny end of my garden but designing with foliage in shade is also exciting. Using hostas alone can give you a dramatic choice of color, texture and leaf size. Ferns, mayapple, kirengeshoma, european ginger – all are easy to grow and worth a look.

Color and shape contrasts with Carex elata ‘Aurea’, dark leaved ligularia and Hydrangea ‘Lemon Wave.’ Photo credit: M. Brehaut

Foliage or blooms, perennial or vegetable, sun or shade, there are many ways to have a garden. Try one, try more than one – it feels wonderful to plant something and see it grow.

What’s your favorite foliage plant?

Last modified: June 21, 2012

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