more articles >


Dianne and Gary Westlake

Many gardeners find it challenging to keep a succession of blooms throughout the summer. One way to solve this problem is to put aside thoughts of flowers and focus on leaf colour, shape, and texture. The big advantage of doing this is that leaves last the whole season while flowers come and go. There is such a variety available that it is sometimes easier to add interest to your garden with leaves than with flowers.

The flowers of perennials usually cannot carry the show alone because they have a short blooming period. It gets a bit boring to have your garden all one colour of green or all a similar leaf shape but if you can arrange your plants so that the leaf colour and texture varies in a pleasing arrangement, then it will look good at all times. All one colour or type of leaf together is not as interesting as one type of foliage contrasted against another. Repeating a colour or texture further along a perennial border will also help draw attention as long as it is not too repetitive or predictable.

Foliage choices contribute to the style of a garden. Straight rows, repetition and neatly clipped foliage works for formal gardens but most gardeners are not aiming for that Palace of Versailles look. Most are looking for something more comfortable. Even those who enjoy a formal garden usually want to have a little softness and are happier when some irregular patterns are included.

We are reforming plant collectors. We have heard this described as "planting in drifts of one". Now we are trying to place larger groups of the same plant together but beside contrasting foliage of other plants and it is working better. If you try to display too many wonderful plants in your garden, none of them will stand out and get the attention they deserve. We are trying to take our own advice but every time we encounter a new and different plant, we just have to have it.

Even within the same family of plants there is often a great variety of leaf colours. Many shrubs have a dark red form and a light green or yellowish form as well as the regular green. For example, there is a purple as well as a green smoke bush and a dark ninebark called 'Diablo' as well as lighter coloured varieties. There is now even a bronze ninebark called 'Coppertina'. Elderberries also come in a variety of colours. One of the loveliest light green shrubs to incorporate in your garden is mock orange.

Many of our coral bells (Heuchera) are in bloom now but it really does not matter much because, for coral bells, the leaves are more important. In addition to the common ones that are green with red flowers, there are now hundreds of varieties ranging from very light green to yellow leaves like 'Lime Rickey' through reddish-bronze like 'Palace Purple' to some that have almost black leaves like 'Obsidian'. There are also many that have mottled leaves like 'Silver Scrolls'. One of us likes the ones that have off-coloured leaves like 'Amber Waves' and 'Marmalade', but the other thinks that we kill enough plants as it is. There is no point in having some that start out looking dead.

Hostas come in a great variety of colours from pale yellow to dark blue. Many have leaves with gold or white edges or white centres. There is even a great variety called 'Striptease' that has a pair of white bands surrounding a lighter green area in the middle of the leaf. Hosta leaves can be very small or very large. Our friend has a dark blue hosta plant that measures seven feet across and has huge leaves.

Plants with variegated leaves can brighten a dark corner. We have a variegated dogwood that is a strong accent in our garden. Be aware that when you use too much variegation, it looses its impact Also, some of the variegated forms do not grow as well as the normal varieties. We have found periwinkle a bit invasive but the variegated form barely survives. We have given up trying to grow variegated Jacob's ladder.

Another variation in leaves relates to their texture. Lambs ears and many artemesia have fuzzy leaves that tend to look gray. On the other hand some leaves are shiny like magnolia or sedums.

The size, shape and complexity of the leaves varies. Ferns, grasses and small leaf plants like Jacob's ladder give a sense of airiness. Some also provide movement as they blow in the wind. Vertical shapes can be contrasted against horizontal shapes, and large leaves against small.

Next time you are uncertain about what to plant where, think about the foliage and you will have an easier time deciding. The flowers will then be the icing on your cake.