Extension Educator, Horticulture
Let's face it. Gardeners are preoccupied with sex. We talk about flower color, flower shape, flowering time, and how long the flowers last. Leaves, the true workhorses, get no respect. They work all day long making food for the plant and for those pompous flowers. For years we seldom talked about leaves in design. Leaves are finally getting well deserved credit for their ornamental appeal.
First we should remember green is a color even though it is not considered as chic as the other flashy colors. No leaves are quite the same shade of green. Plus the texture can vary dramatically to give leaves a different look. Texture is something our eyes recognize, but we don't always put the thought into words. It is simply the range from the fine texture of ferns to the coarse texture of rhubarb. It's best to avoid using leaves of the same size and texture next to each other.
Over the last few years we have seen an explosion of colorful foliage. We always love new plants. But when they come in a flashy suit, we salivate. Luscious leaves provide instant color, variety of texture, variety of form, and something out of the ordinary.
Traditional gardening rules suggest that when you use plants with colorful foliage, use them sparingly. However, one of my favorite quotes is from garden author Felder Rushing. He says, "The rules, bless 'em......Stink." So when it comes to designing with colorful leaves it's time to throw out convention.
Go ahead and use masses of the same brightly colored foliage plants in groups of three, five, seven, nine, or more. The effect will be show stopping.
If you have a passion for purple, there are many possibilities. Purples are set off well by blue-gray or yellow-leaved plants. Pink or white flowers combine well with passionate purples. In deep shade dark leaves can turn into a black hole unless they are combined with light colored leaves or rocks. Bronze leaves can be very dull and muddy looking. But if they are planted so that the sun lights them from the side or from behind, the leaves seem to shimmer. Purple plants include sweet potato 'Blackie', Persian shield, bloodleaf, waffle plant, some cannas and many coralbells.
Then there are the gold diggers. Those chartreuse leaved plants that are spotlights in the garden. They present an intense look with red or orange flowers. Yellow-leaved plants are compatible with dark foliage and blue flowers. They brighten a shady spot. Gold digger annuals include coleus, 'Margarita' sweet potato and 'Bengal Tiger' canna. Perennials include hosta 'Sum and Substance', the ornamental grass, Japanese hakonechloa 'Aereola', 'Amber Waves' and 'Lime Rickey' coralbells.
If you are always looking for the silver lining, there are plenty of plants that deliver. Silvers are great "mixers". They can be intense with hot colors of red and orange or subtle with cool colors of blue and pink. Silvers reflect light to brighten dark corners of the garden. Mix with white for a moon garden. A couple blue grey plants include the grasses Blue Oat Grass and 'Heavy Metal' Switchgrass.
Some plants look like a paint explosion with all kinds of colors in speckles, spots, blotches, or swirls. One way to use these plants effectively is to pick up one color of the leaf and use that color when choosing companion plants. Many coleus fit into this category as wild and crazy.
Potpourri of Gardening hosted by Macon County Master Gardeners http://www.extension.uiuc.edu/macon PH:217.877.6042
Illinois Prairie Hosta Society Meeting - 8:00 a.m. at the Champaign County Extension Office. Guests are always welcome. Questions? Call Bev Cotter at 217-359-2703.