Bartlett on Gardening: A Fool For Foliage



Pink muhlygrass creates a nimbus of sparkling pink.

Even the best-planned perennial garden performs in response to the prevailing weather conditions. There are years when the dog days herald a late-summer blooming hiatus. A very hot July can cause midsummer flowers to finish their show weeks before the late-summer performers are ready to bring on the last act. Rather than resigning myself to a colorless August, I integrate foliage for texture, color, and structure in the border. And as my readers know, I am primarily interested in perennials.

For texture, it is hard to beat fuzzy lamb’s ears or the bold beauty of cardoon. In the right spot, the fine foliage of bronze fennel provides an interesting focal point. Acanthus, or bear’s breeches, was made famous as a motif on Greek Corinthian column capitals. Believe me, the actual plant is more interesting than the stone replica. Ferns of course have it all, wonderful texture and a great range of colors.


​​I really like the contrast of green with gold, silver or red leaves. When choosing plants primarily for foliage interest, keep in mind the color of your soil or mulch. Heuchera, coral bells, provide an excellent example of this consideration.

(Photo: Lovage Leaves)

Where the soil is red clay, purple foliage provides an eye-popping contrast with both green neighbors and the earth, while the copper- or red-toned Heuchera are lost against such a background. Bright-leaved cannas are stunning whether or not they are blooming. Coleus and caladiums are so colorful and long lasting that they are a great substitute for flowers.

Green is a color, too. Its spectrum ranges from chartreuse to nearly blue to soft gray. Because these leaves of green come in every conceivable size, shape and texture, beautiful plantings can be made with thoughtful use of shades of green. The soft gray-green of lavender stands out against a background of such green companions as peonies, coneflowers or celosia. Sedums are unparalleled in their diversity of shapes and colors. As a bonus, they produce delightfully contrasting flowers which fade to provide winter interest

Many groundcovers are amazingly adaptable, offering an interesting alternative to mulch. They create a foundation upon which to layer the contrasting foliage of taller plants. This remains interesting when not much is flowering. I like to underplant these areas with early spring-blooming bulbs to extend the period of visual interest.


​​Ornamental grasses are somewhat underused in our area. They come in a wonderful range of colors and sizes. I knew a gardener who created dramatically elegant beds using grasses exclusively. These were attractive from late spring through winter.

(Photo: Caladium)

In early spring grasses must be cut back, but they grow quickly in warm weather. One of my tall (5-7 foot) favorites is Cloud Nine, a switch grass. Its strongly vertical blue foliage is topped in summer by a cloud of silvery seed panicles.


​​Pink muhlygrass (2-3 foot) is growing in popularity for its late season nimbus of sparkling pink. There are short varieties such as blue fescue and the award-winning ​​Japanese forest grass, Aureola, for the front row. Many grasses make spectacular specimen plants. Highly adaptable, all they need is sun.

For season-spanning color and texture, focus on foliage to create a visual feast.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her garden.


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