In Praise of Foliage

Reading time 6 minutes

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



Categories: Foliage, Garden Design, Photography, Plants

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

Greetings Garden Lover! Welcome to my blog. Plants are my passion and this is my way of sharing that joyful emotion with the world. You'll find over 1000 posts here featuring everything from abutilons to zinnias. If you've enjoyed what you've read, please leave a comment and consider subscribing using the yellow 'Follow' button in the bottom, right-hand corner of your screen. You will receive an email every time I post something new.

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20 comments On "In Praise of Foliage"

  1. I didn’t think there was such an immense beauty in foliage plants until now. The idea is well articulated and am definitely going to try out something of the sort. Thanks to the frustrated gardener for sharing such a masterpiece.

  2. Some v. nice ideas here. I definitely like the look of the Hibiscus ‘Mahogany Splendour’ and Plectranthus ‘Behr’s Pride’, especially in combination with their companions.

  3. Stunning combinations. Really beautiful Dan.

    So now I am feeling quite stressed. I have tried to put together a garden based on white and many shades of green with interesting shapes and textures in the flowers, and haven’t really given much attention to the foliage. I want white flowers 12 months of the year which is really quite silly as almost impossible to achieve. I have such a huge Garden, that was so neglected for many years, that I have really had to take a mass approach to fill the beds. Today I planted 20 hybrid salvias… “Heatwave glare”, along with 40 suteras in amongst a bed of lambs ears that are currently being a little overwhelmed by masses of paper whites …and I am really happy with the textures and knowing I will have lots of white excitement to come. However after your beautiful pics with so much interest in the foliage, I think my garden is going to look terribly boring and like textured lawn!!! Oh dear…. So more thinking required!!

    1. I am quite certain your garden won’t look boring Helen. I could cope with being overwhelmed by paperwhites – I’ve just placed an order for some more. The salvia looks lovely – like ‘Hot Lips’ without the red bits. You are lucky to be able to plant en-masse – I dream of being able to plant more than 3 of anything!

  4. It may sound crazy but the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve gravitated toward foliage as well as (or instead of) flowers. My next garden will be mostly foliage plants and shrubs, with flowers mainly in the area closest to the house.. and little or no lawn!

  5. Yes… my mother has hot lips everywhere – looks fabulous in summer. She is a big salvia lover and has a substantial range. Not easy to find white only – I went looking for the ones we found in Hampton Court – Glimmer and Clotted Cream – not available at all, so Heatwave was the nearest I could find. It is drought tolerant (yippee!) and also able to cope with frost (Yippee no 2!) so am hoping it is a good choice. the Tesselaar catalogue arrived this morning and although I stuffed in my handbag I had to have a sneak peak. I was so inspired by your begonias that I am going to have a go at the Begonia x tuberhybrida in white of course. Have you grown any of the aquilegia Winky series? I am very tempted to try a small selection under my Acers which should give them some protection on very hot summer days. They will take the place of some of my hellebores, which are just starting to appear . I have planted about 300 black and white over the past three years and last year let the seeds drop, so have sooo many coming through. Very exciting – will send you some pictures when in full glory! Happy Gardening. Wish I had 36 hours days…

  6. I agree – foliage is king in my garden. I do like flowers too, but it’s the leaves that makes me tingle – especially big, bold, tropical foliage forms, and the leafy structure they offer. I am a complete sucker for ferns of all kinds. One of my favorite times of year is when they unfurl in spring. I also love silvery foliage, and to break up overly “shrubby” areas with grasses. That Astelia with the tree fern is fabulous!

    1. It’s a great Astelia isn’t it? I have one in sun on well drained soil in our coastal garden and one in shade on heavy clay in our London garden and the latter does far, far better. Hallelujah for that!

      1. You could throw pots with our soil in London! The Astelia is not bothered. In fact it’s interesting how many plants are not bothered. I just avoid anything that looks vaguely Mediterranean or demands a well drained soil.

      2. Well, it does contain a lot of great nutrients. We have a lot of pockets of clay here too, but it’s not all hard pack. I think sometimes we gardeners are a little like helicopter parents around our darlings… “Oh no…clay – nothing grows there….need to amend, amend, amend”.When in reality, many would probably do quite well. I moved one of the few roses I have out into my hellstrip this spring. It used to be in deep, lush compost – now it is in mostly clay, and not getting a whole lot of water. It’s looking better than ever…Who would have thunk…?

  7. I totally agree foliage is so often overlooked and as I say to clients who dive into the detail of what flowers they want in their gardens, foliage and all its varied greens which provide contrast are the backbone structure of any garden. Let’s hear it for leaves!

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