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Fabulous Foliage — Summer 2008 | Out Here Magazine

Drop the blooms and create a flowerless garden

By Rita Randolph
Photography by Rita Randolph

Most gardeners think "flowers" when planning their designs, but unfortunately, blooms are fickle, and don't last that long. If a flowering plant goes into any stress due to lack of water, high temperatures, or lack of fertilizer or nutrients, the flowers are the first to go.

By using more ornamental foliage plants, you will always have something beautiful to look at.

There is a leaf color for virtually every chip in a color wheel. Whether you are designing a foundation planting, landscape beds, or containers, foliage color and texture is the perfect backdrop.

Evergreen trees and shrubs are the backbone of any garden, and the green background sets off the foliage color of many other garden plants.

Conifers come in so many enticing colors and textures that many people collect them and plant them all in a concentrated area much like a rock garden.

Dwarf or slow-growing varieties are also well suited for container gardening, where a tall cylindrical shape is center focus and other short fuller ones are situated around the pot for interest and contrast.

Breeders of blooming shrubs have come up with some very colorful foliage in cultivars of many of our old favorites. There are golden foliage and variegated varieties of buddleia, spirea, forsythia, and weigela, and burgundy, bronze, or other colors as well.

Perennial plants such as heuchera, bergenia, and many hardy ferns look great year round. I also combine them in weather-resistant containers where I can enjoy them all year, adding conifers or seasonal annuals.

A great textural addition is the many dwarf ornamental grasses and grass-like plants. Sedges such as the Carex family are extremely beautiful, soft to the touch, and add a strong linear form.

Annuals and lots of tropical foliage plants are now grown side-by-side in flowerbeds and containers, keeping the mix colorful and exciting.

By adding the interesting foliage of small grasses and shrubs, there is an endless number of foliage combinations to try.

Rita Randolph is a second-generation greenhouse grower at Randolph's Greenhouses in Jackson, TN.

Rita's Winning Combinations

When designing combinations, I start with a few easy rules.

  • Foliage first. If the foliage of a plant or group of plants is interesting and pleasing to the eye, then flowers are a bonus.

  • Always break up large foliage with fine-textured foliage. Too many large leaves altogether look chunky, like puzzle pieces that don't quite fit. Mixing in fine foliage of grasses, ferns, or any small-leafed plant will help blend those large leaves into a pleasing form that moves your eye around the arrangement.

  • The rule of three. Select a tall "thriller" plant, medium "filler" size, and a shorter or cascading "spiller" plant. Mix up the heights of groups of plants carefully, so that there is movement, but nothing overpowering in one area unless you are creating a focal point.

  • Play around without following the rules. Creativity has its rewards!