Garden Design: The Foliage Factor

One of the easiest ways to add three seasons of color to a landscape is with foliage. Let’s face it, leaves require a lot less maintenance than most flowers. Yes, we need flowers for their beauty and as a food source for pollinators, but if we introduce more color from leaves (other than various shades/tints of green), we’d jazz up gardens that require a lot less effort on our part.

Geranium ‘Boom Chocolatta’

With all the exciting breeding in the green industry, there are many cool switcheroos possible. For example, instead of using a hardy Geranium like ‘Johnson’s Blue’ with ho-hum green leaves, you could opt for Geranium p. ‘Boom Chocolatta’ (pictured) that has dark chocolate, lacy leaves adorned by rich blue-purple flowers. Or perhaps you swap a green leaved Penstemon digitalis (Beardtongue, native) for Penstemon ‘Mystica’. This hummingbird magnet has lilac purple flowers, dark purple stems, and eggplant purple leaves. And just one glance at a bench of Coral Bells (Heuchera) will dazzle the eye with the kaleidoscope of foliage colors: peach, electric yellow, black, purple, rose and many more. 

Aralia ‘Sun King’

Plants with silver, white or yellow/chartreuse in their leaves are invaluable for shade gardens. These colors reflect limited sunlight, brighten dim corners, and ‘shine the light’ on companion plants.  Some of my favorite perennials are Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ and ‘Sea Heart’; Hosta ‘Patriot’, ‘June’ ‘Designer Genes’ and ‘First Frost’; Japanese Painted Fern ‘Ghost’; silver-leaved Lamium ‘Pink Pewter’ and others (except ‘White Nancy’ that I’ve found less vigorous), variegated Polemonium (Jacob’s Ladder) ‘Stairway to Heaven’; Aralia ‘Sun King’ (pictured, the 2020 Perennial of the year), and Hakonechoa ‘All Gold’ and ‘Aureola’.

And sizzling foliage is not restricted to perennials.  There are exotic specimens to choose from among shrubs, trees, annuals, tropicals, vines and vegetables. For an eye-popping array of stunning foliage plants, check out my friend Karen Chapman’s book, Gardening with Foliage First.