When I was young I loved visiting my grandmother’s shady perennial beds in central Indiana. They were filled with every leafy shape the mind could imagine, yet rarely a flower could be found. My grandmother taught me that there are other beautiful options that can bring just as much joy to your gardening heart. Both foliage and decorative glass offer colorful alternatives to the traditional blooming beds and I use them as much as I can in my own garden.
Planning your foliage garden well means your garden can stay beautiful year round without flowers. Mixing leaf structures and plant heights adds interest. At the top you see Fern ‘lady fern’ mixed with Hosta ‘halcyon’ in my side garden at home. I love the blue of the hosta because it contrasts marvelously with the bright green of the soft, feathery-leaved ferns.
A favorite combination is to mix some coleus love into my shade vegetable containers. Lacinto Kale from Bonnie Plants and Coleus from Hort Couture’s ‘Under the Sea’ line make a fabulous color splash together. No flowers can be seen, but the foliage color is astounding and really adds to a shade patio container arrangement (see below).
Mixing Heuchera and Hosta together can be a brilliant foliage combination. In the garden bed above you see a random bed plan of Heuchera ‘snow angel’ and Heuchera ‘beaujolais’ mixed with Hosta ‘krossa regal’, Hosta ‘gold standard’, and Hosta ‘half and half’.
Want to keep your perennials in place while adding color and interest with glass? Bring whimsical glass accessories in to the garden beds. I have endless wine bottle paths (photo above) draped with ground cover and a fantastic bottle tree (photo right) I found at Carolee’s Herb Farm, a favorite stop whenever I am in central Indiana.
Bottle trees are a remarkably cool folk art brought from Africa and the Middle East centuries ago and were originally used to capture bad spirits. Now they capture color and light and bring a bit of joy to my suburban shade garden.
Below are two books I recommend to help you study up on filling your garden with color not found in a flower; Fine Foliage by Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz is a delightful full color book which brings wonderful ideas for foliage color combinations, and Bottle trees.. and the Whimsical Art of Garden Glass by Felder Rushing is an outstanding full color celebration of creative glass-in-the-garden creations.
According the FTC, I need to let you know that I received products in this story at no cost in exchange for reviewing them.
Here are portraits of some of the Under the Sea Series of coleus. Top row l. to r.: Bonefish, Gold Anemone, Hermit Crab. Bottom row: Lime Shrimp, Moten Coral, Sea Scallop.
Coleuses have undergone an amazing transformation in the past few years. No longer relegated to the dark corners of the garden (although they still fill that role admirably too), the brightly colored foliage of coleuses can now take center stage in full sun thanks to numerous sun-tolerant introductions. At this year’s American Nursery and Landscape Association Clinic, the Under the Sea Series of coleus from Hort Couture won the Garden Idol award, meaning it was the favorite of attendees. Plants in this series are characterized by extreme frills and dazzling colors reminiscent of life on a coral reef. The ones that I’ve seen growing in the garden add an exciting element of texture paired with stunning colors.
The aptly named Under the Sea coleus series takes my thoughts back to the days when The Little Mermaid movie was first released, and the song, ‘Under the Sea’ was popular, at least among the elementary and pre-school set, of which my daughters were a part at the time. I remember them performing that song with their friends at a 4-H talent show. They didn’t come away with any American Idol awards, but getting up on stage and performing was a good experience for them. As they sang,
“The seaweed is always greener
In somebody else’s lake…
Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful things surround you
What more is you lookin’ for?”
Indeed. I have a bench of coleuses in my greenhouse, just waiting for spring to arrive. I can’t wait to create islands of color with them in the landscape. Look for Under the Sea coleus at independent garden centers this spring.
Here’s a real “wow” plant for you! ‘Black Pearl’ ornamental pepper. Enjoy it for its dark foliage in spring and early summer — then the grape-sized round black fruits enchant in summer before they put on a real show and turn dazzling red in early autumn. It’s one of my favorite varieties — a staple in my garden (and an All-America Selections winner back in 2006!).
Flowers can be flighty things — plants seem to go in and out of bloom all the time and delicate petals are often damaged by heavy rain or fade quickly in hot temperatures.
That’s why I tend to use a lot of plants with fun foliage when I do garden designs. Here, for example, is a variegated beautyberry (Callicarpa) — it’s a knockout now and I can’t wait for fall when the stems are adorned with its stunning purple fruits.
So next time you go shopping for plants at your local garden center, pay more attention to the leaves. You can create some amazing plant combinations by playing off foliage.
For example, try mixing a pool of white-edged hostas with some with white centers. The effect is subtle, but smashing. Or make a shrub like this beautyberry stand out by pairing it with the rich purple foliage of a dwarf ninebark or dark green rose of Sharon.
Or mix some plants with chartreuse foliage in with those that are more silvery-blue in nature. They’ll look good spring to autumn.