When it comes to gardens it’s natural that flowers are the highlight but, as these fade away or if there are gaps between flowering periods, our gardens can be left looking a little, well, uninteresting – and that’s why it’s important to ensure your garden is not only full of flowers, but also full of foliage!
Whether it’s prolonging a border display through the seasons, acting as a backdrop to showy, colourful flowers or adding architectural interest in the form of a specimen plant, the role of foliage in our gardens simply cannot be under-estimated. Adding its own colour and texture, foliage can be evergreen which provides year-round interest and structure, or semi-evergreen or deciduous which often means that it provides its own dazzling display of fresh new growth in Spring, followed by a Summer of gorgeous colour before finishing with another blaze of fiery colour in Autumn. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s easy to find foliage which is suitable for any garden situation too, whether that’s sunny, shady, dry, marginal, wet – or any combination of these!
We could wax lyrically about foliage for some considerable time, but to help you make the most of foliage in your own gardens, we’ve put together our own guide focusing on the key elements of colour, size, shape and scent.
When we think about foliage, it’s probably fair to say that most of us immediately think of green which, in a variety of shades, can make for an amazing garden display in its own right. But if the wonder of green isn’t enough, then foliage hues do span the entire spectrum – so it’s always possible to find a plant that will complement or contrast others depending on what you’re looking to achieve.
Pink, purple and burgundy:
Plants with pink, purple or burgundy leaves are a great addition, particularly in the Summer garden, where their dramatica foliage provides great contrast with bright flower colour. But it’s not just the contribution they make in Summer to consider, as many also have gorgeous fresh Spring growth and a spectacular Autumn display to offer too – making them a long-lasting three-season must for any garden.
Our favourites include cotinus, varieties of heuchera, varieties of sedum and phormium.
Variegated and patterned:
Striped or speckled foliage patterns and variegated foliage add a little something extra and can be used to add points of interest to the green border or to lighten up a dark corner. Patterned foliage, such as coleus and miscanthus zebrinus, provide two-tone leaf colour and the most common variegations pair green with cream, yellow or white, such as euonymous and pieris.
Blue, silver-grey and black:
Perhaps the most under-used of foliage colours in the garden, blues, silver-greys and black also have their part to play. Blue and blue-green foliage is great for creating a cool and elegant link to other colours in the garden, while smoky blacks are perfect for adding drama and contrast. Grey and silver-grey leaves can play magic tricks when paired with other plants as they reflect tints of complementary colours – next to red they becomes slightly green, paired with violet they appear yellowed and near orange will have a blue tinge.
Our favourites are eucalyptus, senecio, ophiopogon and sambucus.
Red and yellow:
Fiery red and soft yellow leaves are synonymous with Autumn and probably the most commonly considered plants to provide these colours are glorious maples. At their best during the Autumn months, there is no doubt that the changing colour of maples provides a truly showing-stopping display, but there are also other plants with red or yellow leaved foliage – such as choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ and berberis thunbergii ‘Orange Sunrise’ which can add intensity to ‘hot’ planting schemes and pizzazz to pots!
Foliage – Big & Small!
Not only does foliage come in a whole spectrum of colours, it also comes in a variety of sizes on plants of both big and small scale. Compare the tiny leaves of pine needles to the large, star-like leaves of a liquidambar, the tiny leaves found on alpines to the glorious banana-like leaves of a canna – and indeed banana plants themselves – and the large and small-leafed varieties of both hosta and ivy which are available and you’ll see that it’s really quite easy to contrast leaf size for extra interest.
The larger foliage plants, such as canna and hosta, are bold attention grabbers and often used to add a lush, tropical or jungle touch. Smaller leaved plants such, as alpines, sedum and spirea, are generally finer textured and give a light and airy feeling to the garden.
When considering use of foliage in the garden, add in the design concept of using larger shrubs as a backdrop to smaller perennials and shrubs, and you’ll be able to create a lovely layered effect too.
Not all foliage is created equal – and thank goodness for that – because a variety of leaf shapes throughout bed and border designs provides the added element of ‘visual’ texture and creates a unique visual statement in the garden.
We think of leaf shapes in four broad categories:
Simple leaf shapes are oval, heart, round and arrow in form and, though simple, are most definitely not boring! They offer great contrast potential against finer and fern-like leaved plants. Our favourites include brunnera, arum, choisya and bay.
Linear foliage can be strongly upright or softly arching and makes a great statement or focal point, whilst providing lovely contrast and movement in the garden. Our favourites include cordyline, iris, hemerocallis, kniphofia and of course elegant grasses which can be tall and ‘see-through’, making their presence felt without blocking the view through to the plants behind, or smaller grasses such as hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass) which are great for under-planting light shrubs or used a soft edging for pathways.
Fern or fern-like foliage adds an exotic element to the garden and, as lots are evergreen, they provide year-round interest too. The variety of frond shapes and sizes available, from delicate feathery to prehistoric looking, add an extra dimension to planting designs. Most are happiest in shade which means they’re great for those difficult garden spots and larger varieties, such as the exotic tree fern, can also be used as architectural features in their own right. Our favourite smaller ferns are the hart’s tongue fern, the japanese fern and polypodium vulgare.
Fancy leaf shapes are deeply lobed or indented and they can also add an exotic element, introducing a hint of foliage ‘bling’ that every well-designed garden needs! Both large and small plants with this leaf shape are available – our favourites are gunnera, fatsia, geranium and heuchera.
When you’re considering foliage shape, you don’t always need to mix different foliage shapes and colours to create a lovely effect. For example you could create a fabulous succulent-only garden using a combination of large and small leaved, simple and linear foliage shaped succulent plants, or a simple, ethereal green-on-green combination of fern-like, linear and simple leaf shapes.
We naturally think of the source of scent in our gardens as being flowers, but the foliage of many plants contain aromatic essential oils which, when picked, crushed or brushed past, release scent to add another wonderful sensory dimension to the garden.
Herbs are the most obvious scented foliage plants, and indeed the aroma of lavender, rosemary and bay is always a delight, but there are also other scented foliage plants which make their own wonderful contribution. Monarda (or bergamot) has a gorgeous citrussy foliage, as does the aptly named lemon verbena, salvia ‘Hot Lips’ has scented foliage reminiscent of blackcurrants and some varieties of ornamental ribes have aromatic leaves too.
All that smells is not necessarily pleasant though, as there are also some scented foliage plants, such as coleus ‘Scaredy Cat’, which give off a pungent odour when touched by humans – but on the plus side are a great deterrent to dogs, cats, rabbits and foxes!
Now that we’ve tickled your foliage taste buds, come and check out all the gorgeous foliage plants we have available in-store – and get your garden filled up with glorious foliage!