Garden Design | Spring Planted Bulbs

Create a Garden with Foliage

By | May 21, 2020

Flowers are great and all, but have you tried using foliage in your garden? As in life, gardens need balance. Using foliage in your garden creates balance among all the pretty blooms. Many gardens focus on the flowers and sprinkle plants with interesting foliage in here or there; however, have you ever considered flipping the script and using foliage as the main focus of your garden with flowers sprinkled in?

Dreaming of Greener Gardens

Bleeding Hearts

Bleeding Hearts

This past weekend I took on the daunting task of clearing violets and ditch lilies from my front garden bed. As I was pulling, digging, and fighting these noxious plants, I was daydreaming of what I would replace them with.

The area the violets and lilies took over is mostly shade. In spring there is a bit more sun, but the large maples in my front yard provide shade in summer. I could plant shade plants that are grown for their flowers such as astilbe, and bleeding hearts. However, I have hostas with decorative leaves I planted in a nearby garden area along with Lily of the Valley that we inherited with the house. Therefore, adding more foliage plants to my front yard and garden bed makes the most sense to me. The world of shade plants provides plenty of options for plants with interesting leaves. This makes creating a garden with interesting foliage in my front yard an attainable goal.

Plants with colorful leaves aren’t just for shade gardens. There are many options for sun-loving plants that have interesting foliage. Whether it is the size of the leaves, or the color of the leaves, creating an interesting foliage garden in the sun can be done.

To create a foliage garden or to add more plants with interesting leaves to your gardens, below are some suggestions to inspire you.

Best Foliage Plants for Shade Gardens

Hosta

Hostas

These well-known shade plants produce flowers in mid-summer. However, the majority of the time hostas are planted for their foliage. Hosta leaves come in an array of colors, from green to blue-green, green with yellow, green with white, all white, and blue-green with yellow. Using a variety of hosta in a shade garden is the simplest way to create a unique garden that utilizes foliage as the main feature.

Hosta have varying textures in their leaves. Some varieties of hosta have smooth and glossy leaves, while others have deeply textured foliage. Using different textures in a foliage garden creates dimension, depth, and interest.

The size and shape of hosta foliage is another way to jazz up your shaded foliage garden. Varieties like Abiqua Drinking Gourd Hosta have heavily textured steel-blue leaves that fold upward forming a cup shade to gather water. Some hosta like Big Daddy Hosta have large leaves that grow 8″ or more across. Blue Mouse Ears Hosta is a miniature hosta with a dwarf growing habit, but also miniature mouse-ear sized leaves.

If you are planning a foliage garden full of hosta read our Complete Guide to Growing Hostas.

Ferns

Ostrich Fern

Ostrich Fern

I may have mentioned this before in previous blog posts, but I love ferns! Walking through forest areas and seeing ferns in the understory makes me happy. Ferns tend to have a fine texture that compliments foliage plants with large bold leaves such as hosta. Ferns prefer moist soils and shade to part shade. Varieties like Ostrich Fern colonize by underground roots and should be planted in areas they are allowed to take over. An entire foliage garden can even be created using only ferns; however, I like to use ferns as accents with other foliage plants.

Caladium

Postman Joyner Caladium

Postman Joyner Caladium

Southern gardeners are quite familiar with caladium plants. They are often used at the base of trees in warm climate gardens. They are not limited to warm climates and can be grown as annuals in cold climates. Caladiums are some of the best plants to add to your foliage garden because of their large colorful leaves in shades of green, white, pink, or red. Two of the most popular varieties of caladium are Candidum Caladium and Postman Joyner Caladium. Candidum Caladium has green and white leaves perfect for a green foliage garden. Postman Joyner is a colorful caladium that has large leaves with green edges and reddish/pink center accents. Using Postman Joyner as an accent in a potted plant in a container garden will liven up your foliage garden.

Best Foliage Plants for Sun

Canna Lilies

Canna Lilies

These tropical plants provide the best of both worlds, interesting foliage, and showy flowers. Let’s talk about the foliage. Canna lilies have big, bold leaves often green, but sometimes in other colors as well. Dark purple and bronze leaf canna lilies like Black Knight Canna, Wyoming Canna, and Red Futurity Canna will add contrast to your foliage garden.  Variegated leaves of Tropicanna Canna and Stuttgart also add contrast with green-leaved variety like City of Portland Canna and Los Angeles Canna. Mix canna lilies with varying foliage attributes for a fun in the sun foliage garden.

Canna lilies love the heat and grow best in warm climates. They thrive in sunny gardens with ample moisture. Gardeners in northern climates can grow canna lilies in their garden as an annual.

Elephant Ears

Diamond Head Elephant Ear

Diamond Head Elephant Ear

Elephant Ears are another tropical plant grown for their bold foliage. Like the name implies, they have large ears like an elephant! Yes, the leaves are large but so are Elephant Ears when they are fully grown. They can reach heights of 4-6′ or more. Common Elephant Ears have large green leaves that are typically 12″ long and wide or bigger. Unique varieties like Diamond Head Elephant Ear have dark purple foliage. Our guide to Growing Elephant Ears has more details on specific varieties.

Plant these tropical foliage plants in a sun to a partial location where they can receive adequate water. Elephant Ears, when mixed with Canna Lilies, create a bold, tropical full sun foliage garden.

Sedum

Night Embers Sedum

Night Embers Sedum

Succulents like sedum are popular for indoor and outdoor foliage gardens. The textures and colors produced by sedum will create a unique foliage garden in the sun. Varieties like Dazzleberry Sedum and Little Miss Sunshine Sedum stay low to the ground. Ground cover sedum varieties work great in retaining walls and rock gardens. An entire wall can be covered in colorful foliage when mixing different types of sedum. Upright varieties of sedum like Night Embers Sedum have purple foliage. When Night Embers Sedum is not blooming the foliage remains interesting.

Hens and Chicks are in the sedum family but are from a different genus of plants called Sempervivum. Both sedum and hens and chicks should be planted in dry soil with good drainage. They are succulent plants and hold moisture in the leaves. Mixed ground cover sedum and Hens and Chicks is a great way to create a sunny foliage garden in your yard.

Balance Foliage with Flowers

As we know, flowers are great! They provide nectar for pollinators, pleasant scents for our nose, and vivid colors for our eyes. Plants with interesting foliage have many benefits. Most are easy to grow and some have large leaves that can collect water for animals while retaining visual interest for months on end. If you aren’t ready to fully commit to a garden with mostly foliage plants, hopefully, you will be inspired to add a couple of the plants mentioned above to your garden.

Need Gardening Help?

If you need any help with gardening or if you have plant-related questions or concerns, feel free to reach out to Jenny San Filippo. She can provide you with the knowledge and tools needed to succeed with your next project!

Contact Jenny

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