I’d like to take a moment to sing the praises of……foliage. You know, that green stuff that’s underneath all the pretty flowers you want in your garden?

When it comes time to plan a garden, most people – regardless of color choice or plant preference – want the same thing.  That “wow” factor. Not too hard when there’s an abundance of sunlight, no deer using the property as an all-you-can-eat salad bar, and a client (or landscaper) who is willing to do the not-insignificant amount of maintenance that a boisterous perennial garden requires.

But  what if the garden is in deep shade? Or the property is overrun by deer? Or, if you’re like 90% of my clients, what if you have both? Which is how I learned to appreciate the benefits of “foliage-only” plants.

It is so tempting, particularly after this winter, to find yourself at the nursery scooping up armloads of  colorful annuals and perennials. But even with diligent pruning and deadheading the flowers eventually stop blooming and you’re left with green leaves for the rest of the season.

Designing with foliage-plants can substantially improve the overall effect of your garden and provide continued interest long after the flowers are gone. Foliage-plants are grown primarily for the color, texture or shape of their leaves. And I find that having some non-blooming plants in my gardens and containers actually enhances the more showy perennials and flowering shrubs. They provide a visual “resting place” that allows the eye to pause and reflect before moving on. This creates a more dynamic garden that is both cohesive in design and lovely to look at too.

Here are some of my favorites:

Coral bells (Heuchera) – a shade-loving perennial whose leaves come in a wide range of unusual colors – from purple and burgundy to chocolate brown, often with a silvery or metallic overlay. The plant produces sprays of inconspicuous flowers that I usually cut down as I think they actually detract from the foliage. Coral bells provide a striking and sophisticated contrast to the sea of greens found in most gardens. 

Ladies mantle (Alchemilla mollis) blooms with pretty clusters of small chartreuse flowers. Its rounded, kidney-shaped leaves literally sparkle when wet, either after a rainfall or in the early morning. The effect is spectacular and really sets this plant apart.

Leopard plant (Ligularia dentata), like Coral bells, produces leaves that (in my opinion) are far more attractive than the flowers. There are several varieties of Ligularia – all with large, striking leaves that are a beautiful accent in any garden.

 Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum) blooms with pairs of small, bell-shaped white flowers in spring. The flowers are fragrant and charming but I love this plant for its variegated leaves that sit arched and upright atop deep red stems. The foliage looks lovely in a cut arrangement – even without the flowers – and has the added benefit of turning a pretty shade of yellow in autumn.

Bethlehem sage (Pulmonaria saccharata) bears clusters of flowers that age from pink to blue. Its long, oval-shaped leaves are covered with silvery dots, giving them a mottled appearance. The unusual foliage stays lush all season long.

Stonecrop (Sedum) is a family of plants containing about 400 varieties. They typically have thick, fleshy leaves and a tropical, modern look. I like to combine several different varieties in a rustic container as a contrast to the more “cottage-y” look of my perennial beds. They are very low maintenance and drought-tolerant too (great if you hate to water!).

This is just a small sampling of the foliage-plants available. When you consider the vast array of colors, shapes and textures to be found in the leaves of many plants, the possibilities for achieving year-round interest in your garden are endless. Still don’t be “leaf” me? Here’s a photo of a planter I designed using only foliage plants:

Finally, I “leaf” you with this joke supplied by Chelsea, who took time out of studying for her college finals to contribute:

Q: Why do you never iron a 4-leaf clover?
A: You might “press” your luck!

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