Anna Pavord said it best: “A garden that is all flowers is like a cake that is all icing.” The antidote to the saccharine sweetness of short-lived blooms is foliage. Too many flower colours thrown together makes your eyes jump from plant to plant. A garden needs the bulk and stability of foliage to highlight the flowers, draw your eye slowly through the garden, and provide a cool, green respite from the heat, concrete and dust of the city.
A wide variety of height, form, shape, texture and colour in leaves provides unlimited scope for interesting and sometimes surprising combinations. Variegated leaves add to your garden palette, but be cautious–too many patterns placed close to each other looks busy and fussy, a bit like your great Aunt Edith’s bric-a-brac. Variegated plants need to be well-spaced in order to draw attention to other plants or to bring light to a shady spot.
In spring, the heart-shaped leaves of Brunnera and Epimedium contrast with the intricate geometry of ferns and the airy leaves of Columbine (especially our native Aquilegia canadensis), Fern-Leaf Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa) and Columbine Meadow Rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium), while providing a background to spring bulbs (and later hiding their messy foliage). The sword-shaped leaves of Siberian iris stand like exclamation marks long after their flowers have faded.
In summer, the great variety of hostas (large, small, pleated leaves, blue, chartreuse, variegated) are luscious combined with Autumn fern, Japanese painted fern and purple-leaved black bugbane (Cimicifuga ‘Hillside Black Beauty’). Large architectural plants such as heartleaf sea kale (Crambe cordifolia), bear’s breeches (Acanthus), shieldleaf Rodgersia (Astilboides tabularis), yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata) and Korean angelica (Angelica gigas) make a bold backdrop for finely textured plants such as threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrechtii), ornamental grasses and maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).
Combinations of colourful foliage will outlast the blooms in your garden. The silvers of Artemesia, Dusty Miller and lamb’s ears; the golds of creeping Jenny, Bowles golden sedge (Carex elata ‘Aurea’), Hakone grass and golden oregano, and the yellows, greens, oranges, purples, reds and pinks of coral bells (Heuchera) add season-long colour. The ultimate foliage plant for colour and leaf shape has to be coleus. With hundreds of varieties, from the large-leafed multi-coloured ‘Kong Mosaic’ to the chartreuse ‘Wasabi’, coleus can shake up any garden bed.
Some plants wait until the weather cools to put on a show. In addition to the traditional fall colours of trees, many other plants strut their stuff. Shrubs that dazzle with colourful foliage include Fothergilla, serviceberry, witch hazel, oak leaf hydrangea and dogwood. Many perennials put on a good show too. Epimedium leaves turn burgundy and last through the winter. Solomon Seal becomes golden yellow before succumbing to frost. Ornamental grasses are at their most brilliant in the fall adding colour, texture and movement to the winter garden.
Fill your garden with great foliage, and you will never run out of satisfying plant combinations.