It’s easy to become absorbed with flower colours when choosing garden plants, but remember that leaf shape and colour offer a more long-lived display.
A careful selection of foliage plants can create a restful and trouble-free backdrop of greenery for much of the year.
Leaf shape and colour
Many bold-leaved plants are much loved by garden designers. Low-growing types such as hostas provide foreground interest and contrast. Taller plants with strong leaf shapes set against a plain background (such as a pastel wall) are attractive in their own right and in the shadows they cast.
There are also many variegated leaved flowering plants, plus plain and variegated grasses, bamboos, ferns (but not tree ferns unless you are in a mild area) and sedges to include in borders or in pots on patios. Deep greens or shades of all-year red or yellow are also worth considering.
But whatever you choose, decide which are best as feature plants, to be enjoyed in splendid isolation, and which can be blended with a planting scheme. There’s always the danger of overdoing variegated plants, for example. A whole bed of variegation is much less effective than one or two amongst the general greenery.
2. Grasses in beds or containers
One group of plants, neglected by many gardeners, is the grasses. Not Pampas grass (which, although it can be magnificent in certain settings, is better left in South America as far as we’re concerned) but the many bamboos and their softer-stemmed relatives.
These lovely plants add grace and movement to the garden, shivering or rippling in the slightest breeze. The colours vary from bright green to golden shades and the flowerheads add extra interest.
Pop in a pot
Even more in their favour, grasses don’t have to be planted in the ground, but readily take to a pot, so are ideal for adorning a pool surrounded by paving, or placed on the patio.
Those ornamental grasses that spread by underground stems are better restrained by growing in a container, but there are still plenty of others to choose from that can be planted in the ground without fear of a take-over, such as Hakonechloa macra ‘Alboaurea’ and tufted hair grass (Deschampsia caespitosa ‘Gold Veil’ or Golden Dew’).
3. Grasses – bamboos
Despite their foreign origins, bamboos are quite hardy in Britain, but because they dislike cold winds, make sure that you plant them in a sheltered spot. These plants prefer dappled shade too.
Very few bamboos have common names and many have been re-named over the years, which has led to confusion. Non-invasive types include Arundinaria (also called Pleistoblastus, or Auricoma) viridistriata that forms clumps to 1.2m high, with leaves brightly striped green and gold, and Shibataea kumasasa that grows with zig-zag stems up to 75cm high in a compact clump.
4.Grasses – large and small, for sun or shade
For sunny spots, there are plenty of grasses with a variety of heights, colours and form. Some are evergreen, so earn a prominent place at the edge of a pool, giving double the pleasure when you take into account their reflections.
Even those which aren’t evergreen keep their dry straw-like leaves and flower-stems over the winter, supplying a splash of tawny colour.
Cut or comb the dead vegetation away in early spring, but be careful not to damage emerging shoots at the base of the clump. Tuck the dead leaves into a corner where they can’t blow away – the birds will appreciate the nesting material.
Stipa gigantea makes a glorious specimen in the garden, especially by water. The effect is of a fountain, with the loose oat-like flowers shooting high above the clump of leaves to sparkle in the sunlight. The 2m high clump ripens to golden brown through the summer, contrasting well with greener plants, and the dry foliage remains as a winter focal point.
On a smaller scale, the golden garden version of our wild tufted hair grass (Deschampsia) will produce a similar effect, but prefers partial shade, unlike Stipa which is a sun-lover. Smaller grasses are effective whether planted singly or in groups. Amongst those which keep their colour throughout the year are the non-invasive evergreen fescues (such as blue-grey Festuca ovina glauca) with their fine leaves and delicate flowers.
5. Sedges (Carex)
The bright evergreen foliage of these grassy look-alikes is extremely useful for lighting up shady sites. Look for golden and variegated leaf variants for extra interest. See what’s available from Thompson and Morgan.
Consider these possibilities:
Japanese sedge (Carex morrowii) 30cm x 30cm.
Great drooping sedge (Carex pendula) 1.2m high x 1m wide.
C. stricta ‘Bowles’ Golden’ – 60cm high x 45cm wide. A short-lived plant.
These beautiful foliage plants offer delicate leaf patterns and fresh green fronds, with the added advantage of tolerating shade. But some can stand the bright sun, and not all need soggy places to live, so can survive happily in a container.
The buckler ferns(Dryopteris spp) are at home in woodland, which means that they will tolerate dry soils. Most require some shade, but the male fern (Dyropteris filix-mas) will survive the sunshine, so is a versatile plant that can be found a place in most gardens.
Lady ferns (Athyriumfilix-femina and its varieties) are also amenable to some sun, but really prefer moist roots, so would be good for a bog garden.
The shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is another which must have its roots in damp soil and prefers some shade.
If you have a large enough garden, the distinctive royal fern (Osmunda regalis) is the one to plant. This is one of the so-called flowering ferns with two types of frond; one is leafy and the other bears spores. The royal fern makes a 2m high and wide clump when grown in ideal conditions of boggy soil. And despite its exotic appearance, this statuesque plant is British and can stand up to the worst of winters.
These provide excellent contrast in shape and colour to grasses and ferns, with much more robust leaves. Many types have a bluish tinge to their leaves and there are numerous variegated hostas with white or yellow leaf margins. These and their glossy green leaved relatives look good by water, but are equally happy in dry or moist soil, in the ground or in a container.
Although hostas are flowering plants, it’s their leaves that are more striking. They die back completely in winter and are slow to push through their growing tips, but the wait is worth it. The leaves unfold quickly to form an attractive clump which is unaffected by all but the worst our climate can throw at it. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about slugs. Whereas grasses, sedges and ferns are relatively pest and disease free and require little attention, hostas do require you to have a battery of precautionary measures in place. If you discover that your plants are becoming holey, then you’ve the choice of using slug pellets (but not where they could fall into a fish pool), or transferring the plant to a container with smooth sides, which might thwart the slugs. However, having seen slime trails reaching up into the top of a sycamore tree one wet year, we don’t think that a foot or so of plastic pot will deter determined munchers. So place the pot on a dry area, perhaps of gravel, which is less attractive to these pests, and check beneath the pot regularly to see if any are lurking. A few slug pellets on the pot’s surface isn’t a bad idea either, but we do mean a few – three at the most. After all, slug pellets are a bait, and there’s no point attracting every slug in the neighbourhood. Another idea is to frequently coat the outside of the pot with something slippy, such as WD40, to make it impossible for the slugs to cross. There’s more on this on our slug control page
We’ve only touched on the topic of foliage plants in this article – the range is huge. But now you know the potential of foliage plants, you’ll soon be spotting suitable plants for creating just the right atmosphere in your garden.