Though many gardeners focus first on flowers, foliage plays a key role in the landscape that should not be overlooked. It’s even possible to create a gorgeous garden where foliage dominates and flowers play a minor role. As a microcosm example, a dish garden of succulents relies solely on leaves for its interest and beauty. Remember, with few exceptions all plants have leaves, and they can be used to knit the garden together.
First of all, don’t get stuck thinking that all leaves are plain old green. Many plants have brilliantly colored foliage. Just look at the glittering array of coleus, the jewel tones of the popular shade plant Heuchera, the rich reds of Japanese maples, and the speckles and spatters of caladiums. Not to mention there is a mind-boggling array of shades of green, ranging from jade to aquamarine to chartreuse. Leaves in colors like pale blue, bright yellow, amber, deep purple, and scarlet offer a wealth of opportunities for color combinations, which are not limited by bloom times as flowers are.
Another great plus with foliage is texture. There are several different texture types and the garden will have better balance if you mix it up. So, include plants that offer a good range: delicate leaves, medium-size ones, and bolder forms. It’s easy to wind up with a whole bed of plants with leaves of about the same size and shape, which can be boring. As you make your plant selections, keep an eye on the foliage as well as the flower colors, heights, and other factors.
While the foliage of plants such as ferns, hostas, sedums, cannas, and euphorbias can easily hold their own in the garden, leaves are also essential foils and backdrops for flowers, fruit, and even bark, highlighting them like a frame on a picture. Consider the pink pendants of bleeding heart flowers, the red hips of rugosa roses, and the white bark of aspens and how vibrant they are when partnered with their foliage.
Be on the lookout for really striking foliage to add extra punch in the landscape, for example cardoon, lungwort, Bergenia, Ligularia, Acanthus, “flapjacks” kalanchoe, and even edible ‘Rainbow’ Swiss chard. A number of tropical plants have very dramatic foliage and are worth adding to the garden even if just for one season, including elephant ears, bananas, angel wing begonias, Persian shield, and cabbage palms. And gardeners rely on narrow-leaved plants like New Zealand flax, grasses, and restios as strong vertical elements.
Foliage is also an essential tool for keeping the growing season moving forward, and extending interest even through winter. If you choose plants with foliage in mind, even as flowers go in and out of bloom there is always something to see in the garden. In fall, what would the garden be without the colors of autumn leaves. And don’t forget evergreen options like hollies, boxwood, and conifers, which look good even under a dusting of snow. Many perennials have year-round foliage as well, such as Dianthus, Ajuga, hellebores, thymes, and some ferns. For annuals, the big leaves of ornamental kale and cabbage can be cold-weather showstoppers.
For all types of gardens, in all zones, there are plants with outstanding foliage, from desert to woodland to seashore to subtropics. So, this year make it a goal to give your garden more color, texture, variety, and seasonal longevity by looking at the leaves.