ornamental grasses

Gardening for foliage

We gardeners tend to obsess over flowers, and with good reason. But a gorgeous garden isn’t just about the blooms. Leaves add colour and texture, particularly as we transition into fall.

To get started with a foliage garden, consider whether you want a garden that is predominantly greens, or if you are using foliage as a source of colour.

There is an incredible array of plants with colourful leaves – bright yellows, golds and oranges predominate, but you can also find shrubs and perennials with leaves in deep purple, burgundy, and many other shades.

One advantage of using foliage as your source of colour is that you’re not restricted to a blooming season. Some elderberries, for example, offer lovely golden foliage all season long, as well as bright white flowers that emerge in spring before the leaves, and a dramatic flash of red or purple berries in the autumn.

However, there’s also a lot to be said for a garden that focuses on various greens. Green is supposedly one of the most soothing colours, and certainly a well-designed fern garden or bed of hostas is a restful sight.

A monochromatic design can also be a way to really play with texture more than colour. For maximum impact, plant a bed with several different leaf textures rather than just one or two. The soft, wooly leaves of lamb’s ear can look lovely against the broad, lustrous leaves of hostas. Add something spiky, like a hardy yucca, and some shrubs with deeply cut leaves like spirea. The interplay of textures creates contrast and visual interest.

Be sure to plan for movement in the garden, as well. Some of the more feathery grasses, like the well-named feather reed grass, look amazing when a breeze wafts through them, making them dance and shimmer gently or gyrate wildly, depending on the wind speed.

Many of the principals of garden design apply to a foliage garden just as much as they do to a floral bed. If you have a larger space, you may want to design the garden around a few dramatic features – say an eight-foot tall ninebark with golden foliage, or the mature grandeur of a weeping willow placed at the back of the view. In that case, consider planting groupings of foreground plants that lead the viewer’s eye toward the feature specimen.

Or you may be working with a more intimate area, which you can fill with a riot of foliage colours and textures. Enter this space and you are surrounded by interesting things to look at, creating an area where you want to linger and absorb it all. Add some seating and invite your guests to pause and soak it in.

In our climate, or course, a well-designed garden absolutely must have plants that still look wonderful as the snow begins to pile up. As the more tender plants die back with the first killing frosts of autumn, hardier plants can really come to the foreground. The seed heads of grasses glint in the morning, an array of diamonds sparkling with the frost. Later, when those grasses are buried in snow (or are cut back), the hardiest shrubs and trees get a chance to show their structure against the snowy backdrop.

If it’s done well, a foliage garden can offer gardeners an endless bounty of delights.

Posted in In the Garden.