Anything but Green
Create a colorful foliage garden
by Michelle Mero Riedel
There’s a garden in my backyard that’s always held my interest. At first, I wasn’t sure why it stood out, as there is obscure flower color most of the growing season. The plants are a mixture of hostas, dianthus, astilbes and heucheras. Soon, I found my answer: It’s all about unusual foliage color.
With so many green-leafed plants available, it’s easy to create an all-green garden. For a garden that really stands out, use colorful foliage plants. Blue, silver, gray, red, purple, yellow and chartreuse go well with green, providing all-seasonal interest.
Blue or glaucous foliage is relaxing to the eye. I have many glaucous hosta favorites. None of them are a true blue, but some are close when paired with a green or yellow hosta. The small ‘Baby Blue Eyes’ has heart-shaped leaves and thrives in shady areas. ‘Blue Mammoth’ looks incredible among hostas ‘Sum and Subsance,’ ‘Frances Williams’ and ‘Gold Standard.’ The slug-resistant ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ is perfect for the front border.
Grasses are an important element in garden design. ‘Elijah Blue‘ (Festuca glauca) is clump-forming with short blue spikes. It looks best in a mass and is perfect for a rock garden. ‘Prairie Blues’ (Schizachyrium scoparium), commonly known as Little Bluestem, is stunning. ‘Blue Dunes’ lyme grass (Elymus arenarius) stands upright with stiff, blue blades.
Other easy-to-find perennials include the Dicentra and Dianthus families. Fernleaf bleeding heart ‘Burning Hearts’ (Dicentra formosa) has blue-green leaves with pink flowers. Two striking blue-foliage carnations are ‘Allwood’s Fragrant Village Pink’ (Dianthus) and ‘Pomegranate Kiss.’ When the flowers finish blooming, they leave lasting blue foliage.
Most garden plants look attractive surrounded by silver and gray. These colors are useful in the shade, where they help brighten dull areas. Silver and gray also tone down hot colors like fuscia, red and orange.
One of my favorites is Silver Sage (Salvia argentea). Although rated for Zone 5 and above, it reappears in my northern Zone 4 garden every spring. The dense, fuzzy leaves are breathtaking.
There are more perennials with silver and gray foliage to consider. Heartleaf Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ (Brunnera macrophylla) has silver leaves veined in greenish-gray, same as ‘Pink Chablis’ lamium (Lamium maculatum). ‘Moonshine’ yarrow’s (Achillea taygetea) yellow flowers stand atop ferny foliage. ‘Silver Mound’ wormwood (Artemisia schmidtiana) is a staple in my garden; it contrasts nicely with surrounding plants. The biennial Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria) boasts hot pink flowers and silvery foliage.
Plants with red or purple foliage add excitement and energy.
Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’ is dazzling in late summer. The red foliage contrasts with the white flower. Castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) is tall, fast-growing and more exotic. ‘Firecracker’ Loostrife (Lysimachia ciliata) is another spectacular plant with deep red foliage.
For purple tones, geranium ‘Dark Reiter’ (Geranium pratense) is a good choice. Short with purple-blue flowers, it’s stunning next to silver foliage. Ligularia ‘Midnight Lady’ (Ligularia dentata) has shiny purple leaves that combine well with golden orange flowers.
The best dark-purple, almost black tones come from ground cover Ajuga repetens. My favorites are ‘Mahogany’ and ‘Black Scallop.’ Both bear glossy leaves. Ajuga is wonderful in a container, providing upright and trailing foliage.
Two fantastic shrubs are ‘Cabernet’ deep-red barberry (Berberis thunbergia atropurpurea) and ‘Royal Purple’ smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria). Their rich, dark foliage thrives in part- to full-sun.
Yellow and chartreuse add drama to almost any area. ‘Aureola’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) pairs well with blue hostas, dark red heucheras and the green leaves of other shade plants.
Another winner is ‘Fire Island’ hosta. The golden tones stand out among blue and green hostas. For chartreuse, my favorite is the large-leafed H. ‘Sum and Substance,’ which can tolerate some sun. I’m enamored with the mini H. ‘Gold Edger’ with its heart-shaped leaves.
Two sunny ground covers ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre) and creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) form a mat of golden yellow leaves. I use both in containers, because they provide sprawling texture.
Many full-sun shrubs have yellow and chartreuse foliage. ‘Tiger Eyes’ Sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’ Tiger Eyes) is a compact variety. It’s chartreuse in the spring, then yellow, orange and red in the fall. The textured ‘Yellow Mops’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) provides year-round color. Three barberries, ‘Golden Carousel’, ‘Sunjoy Gold Pillar’ and ‘Sunsation’ (Berberis), light up with vibrant yellow foliage.
Michelle Mero Riedel is a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener and professional photographer. She gardens in Washington County.