The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Designing with Colorful Leaves

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

I've often thought we gardeners are much too sex crazed. We concentrate on flowers while the workhorses, the leaves, are barely noticed. Foliage is finally getting the respect it deserves in design especially with colorful leaved plants.

The look can be tropical and splashy. Foliage can light up a shady corner of the garden. Colored foliage is long term and instantaneous in the garden. No waiting for the flowers to appear. U of I Extension Educator Greg Stack has developed a new brochure and website to help you design with fantastic foliage.

Traditional gardening rules suggest that when you use plants with colorful foliage, use them sparingly. Avoid using too much color and use lots of green to blend and soften. One of my favorite quotes is from Felder Rushing, garden author and extension agent, he says "The rules, bless 'em, stink." So when it comes to designing with colorful leaves its time to throw out the traditional rules. Stack offers these tips when using plants with colored foliage.

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.

A Passion for Purple

Purple, bronze, red, and black leaves have a common thread of red pigment. 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 resulting effect is one of a plant that shimmers with highlights of red. Purple-bronze-leaved plants are also excellent companions with blue-gray plants. Purple plants include sweet potato 'Blackie‚' Persian shield, bloodleaf, waffle plant and some cannas. Plants with "black" leaves stand out when paired with yellow or red-leaved plants.

Golden Plants

Plants with gold or yellow foliage tend to mimic the strong rays of the sun when planted in mass or "dropped" into a planting. Yellow hued leaves will "warm up" a garden and when paired with orange or red leaved plants, cause them to "burn" with intense color. Yellow-leaved plants are also compatible with purple-leaved plants and blue flowers. Yellow plants include coleus and cannas. Perennials include hosta 'Sum and Substance' and the ornamental grass, Japanese hakonechloa 'Aereola.'

The Silver Lining

Silver-white or blue-gray leaves reflect light and act as "blenders" because they go with most other colors. Silver foliage makes a punctuation type of statement when used with hot colors like red, orange, or gold. White foliage also lightens up dark corners of a garden and is visible in the garden at night.

Wild and Crazy Leaves

Variegated leaved plants offer endless patterns that can be subtle or extremely gaudy and wildly colorful. These irregular patterns can be very complex with the variegations being speckles, spots, blotches, swirls, or lines. Many times, two or more colors are present making them difficult to use. To use these plants effectively, pick up one color of the leaf and use that color when choosing companion plants.

Contrasting Texture and Shape

Avoid using leaves of the same size and texture next to each other. Texture can create spatial illusions. Coarse textured plants will appear closer to the viewer and fine textured plants will tend to recede or appear farther away.

For a copy of the brochure "Fantastic Foliage" stop by the U of I Extension - Champaign County office at 801 North Country Fair Drive in Champaign or visit the website at

What do you do with 200 zucchini? The Master Gardeners will be accepting produce for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank through the Plant-a-Row for the Hungry program on Saturdays starting July 21 from 10-1 at Schnuck's Supermarkets in Champaign and Urbana.

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