The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Go Wild Designing with Colorful Leaves

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

I've often thought we gardeners are much too preoccupied with sex. 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. No waiting for the flowers to appear.

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, it's time to be a garden rebel.

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. Bronze leaves can be very dull and look like a black hole in the garden so plant them so the sun hits them from the side or from behind. Purple plants need to be paired with lighter colored plants such as blue-gray or chartreuse colored plants. Purple plants include sweet potato 'Blackie‰' Persian shield, bloodleaf, waffle plant and some cannas. Perennials include Red Dragon Persicaria, many Heucheras, Sedums Rosy Glow and Vera Jameson and purple sage.


Plants with gold or yellow foliage look like a piece of the sun fell from the sky when planted in mass or "dropped" into a planting. Yellow hued leaves when paired with orange or red leaved plants are a showstopper. Viewers are sure to say "wow!" 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.'

Always Look for the Silver Lining

Silver-white or blue-gray leaves reflect light and blend with most other colors. Silver foliage makes a punctuation 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. Silver plants include the annual licorice plant and the perennials Russian sage, lavender, pussytoes and yarrow.

Go Wild and Crazy

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. 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 PH: 217-333-7672 or check out the website

For more in-depth design tips, join Master Gardener Phyllis Brussel and myself for the University of Illinois continued education class, Flower Garden Design March 27, April 3 and 10 from 7:00 9:00 pm in the Extension auditorium. This class will take you through the design process and familiarize you with some tried and true plants for your particular garden in plenty of time for spring planting. Course fee is $29. To register call 333-7369 or go to, print a registration form, and fax it to 333-9561.

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