In Praise of Foliage

Gardeners the world over are obsessed with flowers. I am no exception. As well as being beautiful to look at, flowers are a sign of success, something one can measure a garden and its gardener by. Along with fruit and vegetables, flowers are part of the horticultutal triumvirate we choose to judge competitively, always striving to grow them bigger and better than others.

The island bed in our London garden is a mass of interesting foliage plants, from Persicaria virginiana 'Compton's Form' to Hydrangea quercifolia.
Our London garden is full of interesting foliage plants, from Persicaria virginiana ‘Compton’s Form’ to Hydrangea quercifolia.

Nurturing a plant to the point where it bears flowers is one of the great challenges and rewards of gardening. Throughout history gardeners have gone to extreme lengths and waited patiently for cherished plants to bloom; from the heated water tank built at Kew by Joseph Paxton to coax Victoria amazonica into bloom, to the 70 years waited by conservationists to witness rare red helleborines flowering in Gloucestershire. We are all suckers for flowers, but without foliage most blooms would, quite literally, amount to nothing.

Astelia nervosa 'Westland', Fuchsia microphylla and Dicksonia antartica create texture and interest in a shady corner of our London garden
Astelia nervosa ‘Westland’, Fuchsia microphylla and Dicksonia antarctica create texture and interest in a shady corner

Apart from the obvious role leaves play in creating fuel for a plant to prosper and reproduce, the role of foliage as a foil for flowers cannot be underestimated. A neatly trimmed lawn can make the scruffiest border look respectable, a framing fringe of trees will anchor a newly created garden, and well-maintained hedges will provide the structure to contain any amount of riotous blossom. Without foliage our gardens would be about as sophisticated and lovely as one of those repellant pot chrysanthemums bred to produce a leafless dome of gaudy flowers.

Begonia luxurians, Imperata cylindrica 'Red Baron', coleus and begonias in our new coastal garden
Begonia luxurians, Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’, coleus and begonias in our new coastal garden

Both our gardens rely heavily on greenery for year-round interest. Flowers, whilst treasured, play second fiddle. Occasionally I bemoan a temporary lack blooms, but then I look more closely and appreciate the richness of the leaves and stems that would support them. Foliage lasts longer than any flower I know and, chosen well, can offer just as much colour, texture, variety and indeed scent.

Foliage is a gardener’s staunchest ally. Flowers are fairweather friends that you should enjoy when they grace you with their presence, but not mourn when they are gone.

Our coastal garden has always been predominantly green, but this year I have been experimenting with silver, red, burgungy and purple-leaved plants. I am especially fond of the combination of Hibiscus ‘Mahogany Splendour’, Fuchsia ‘Contrast’, Cestrum fasciculatum ‘Newellii’, Plectranthus argentea and Tradescantia ‘Purple Sabre’ shown below. Just out of shot are Begonia ‘Benitochiba’ and Geranium sidoides which I’ve added to the composition as the summer has gone on.

To disguise our decrepit old aluminium greenhouse, I’ve grouped together pots filled with Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’, Begonia ‘Little Brother Montgomery’, Begonia luxurians, Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’ and some seed-grown coleus. The flowers of a trailing red geranium and magenta Salvia curviflora are welcome, but not essential for me to enjoy the colourful arrangement.

Aeonium 'Zwartkop', Plectranthus argentea, Tradescantia 'Purple Sabre', Cestrum fasciculatum 'Newellii' and Hibiscus 'Mahogany Splendour'
Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’, Plectranthus argentea, Tradescantia ‘Purple Sabre’, Cestrum fasciculatum ‘Newellii’ and Hibiscus ‘Mahogany Splendour’

As autumn approaches tender perennials such as Melianthus major and Solanum laciniatum make a mad dash for it, throwing up increasing amounts of leaf in an attempt to catch as much sunlight as possible. This makes for a marvellously jungly effect in both gardens.

If you’re planning an new garden, or a just thinking about replanting a small area, my advice is to think about foliage first and flowers second. This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s the leaves you’ll be enjoying next to one another for months on end, not the flowers, so it’s far more important to get the combinations right. Foliage can be quiet and calming, clipped and formal, bold and architectural or lush and exotic. The choice is yours, and the choice is endless.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on foliage and about combinations that have worked well for you this summer.

Plectranthus 'Behr's Pride' is a great tender foliage plant for part shade
Plectranthus fruticosus ‘Behr’s Pride’ is a great tender foliage plant for part shade