Most gardeners are a bit fixated when it comes to our landscapes—fixated on flowers, that is. The thought of azaleas in spring, roses in summer, and mums in fall can be so seductive that we overlook the time between the blooms, which puts us at risk of having a landscape that doesn’t deliver.
This brings me to the unsung hero of gardening: Foliage. Filling your garden with interesting greenery, shrubs, and trees will not only create a backdrop for your featured blooms (not to mention provide shade for them during the hot summer months), it also creates visual interest when flowers are out of cycle.
Color and Contrast
When deciding what type of foliage to feature in your garden, your first consideration should be color. An easy way to score an expert look is to incorporate foliage in a variety of shades. Think leaves only come in one color? Wrong.
In sunny spots, cordyline, purple smoke tree, and purple fountain grass lend beautiful pops of violet, while purple oxalis, purple sweet potato vine , and coral bells (Heuchera sp.) do the same in shady locations. In addition to purple, coral bells come in hard-to-find hues like amber and orange. The bright silver foliage of Centaurea “Colchester White” or Artemisia “Powis Castle” pairs well with blooms of salvia, veronica, and roses for a soft but showy display. Succulents like agave and sedum offer up vibrant shades ranging from silver-blue to the deepest burgundy.
Plants with such intense color create contrasting backdrops for your flowers and help break up the green monotony.
Shape and Size
Varying the shape and size of foliage leaves is just as important as mixing colors. If you plant shrubs that all have similar leaf shapes and sizes, the result is rather bland. Mix small and large leaves to create contrast, and pair rounded leaves with more straight, sword-like varieties or those that are feathery in appearance.
The large, serrated foliage of cardoon plants create high drama, for instance, when planted alongside slender, spiky Irises or ornamental grasses like Mexican feather grass or muhly grass. For shady gardens, consider the glossy, spiny leaves of bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis) or the delicate, ribbon-like leaves of certain Japanese maples. Pair with the large palmate leaves of Japanese aralia and delicate fronds of Japanese painted fern for a striking combination.
Just as with color, size, and shape, the best way to create a stunning garden is to vary the texture of your leaves. Some, such as silver lamb’s ear, are covered with so many tiny hairs that they are soft to the touch. The succulent foliage of ghost plant (Graptophyllum paraguayense) is similarly so silky smooth you can’t help but stroke it. Other plants have a split personality when it comes to texture. Magnolias, for example, have a smooth, high-gloss sheen on the topside of their leaves but are brown and fuzzy beneath.
Beyond an individual plant’s texture, overall “visual texture” is created when plants of different sizes, shapes, and foliage types are combined. The light fuzz on azalea leaves gives them a matte appearance, which contrasts nicely against smooth-leaved shade lovers like cleyera. The thread-like leaves of Mexican feather grass pair perfectly with the chunky, fleshy texture of Sedum “Blue Spruce.”
Once you train yourself to consider a foundation of foliage in your garden combinations, you’ll learn to not only enjoy the flowerless garden moments but even look forward to them.
Leslie Finical Halleck is a Certified Professional Horticulturist with more than 20 years of industry experience. She currently owns and runs Halleck Horticultural, LLC, a green-industry consultancy. Her previous positions include general manager for North Haven Gardens in Dallas and director of horticulture research at The Dallas Arboretum.