Using Fine Foliage in Garden Designs

fine foliage plants

Tropicanna combined with coleus make a nice combination of textures and colors

Looking for new gardening ideas? One of the hottest up and coming trends is using fabulous foliage in the garden for season-long interest and color.

Here are four easy ways to incorporate foliage into your landscaping and container gardening.

Consider Color

fine foliage

Foliage is hot, say “Fine Foliage” authors Salwitz and Chapman.

“Color is the best jumping-off point to start your new adventure,” write Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz in their  book Fine Foliage . The book offers 60-plus foliage combos for every location and purpose.

In their plant recipe “Foliage Fiesta,” for instance, the Tropicanna® canna, ‘Finger Paint’ coleus and ‘Golden Ray’ New Zealand flax (phormium) all sport shades of red, orange, green and cream. But the plants all offer different forms and textures, from the ovate leaves of canna to the serrated shields of coleus to the tough, spiky swords of New Zealand flax.

Ornamental grasses also add texture and interest to your landscape design, particularly the varieties like Little Bluestem, Switchgrass and Purple Moorgrass  that change colors as you head into autumn.

With some plants, the foliage may start out in various shades of green but then changes color as the season comes to a close. This occurs not only with trees and shrubs, but can also include many perennials such as hardy geraniums which turn from green to bright red, hostas which turn to shades of bright gold and yellow, peonies that turn from a rich green to deep red or purple and ornamental grasses that, in late season offer a variety of shades and colors – from bright oranges and reds to softer peaches and golden yellows.

fall foliage

This small section of garden was all green earlier in the season

ornamental grass

Karl Foerster’s Feather Reed Grass in late autumn, paired with mums for a great display


Go dark

Dark foliage is great any time of year. Near-black colocasias and cannas like Tropicanna Black look amazing against lighter colored perennials. “The rich, broad leaves are one of the darkest colors in the cannas and they really add interest in the garden where planted, or when used as a center piece in a large mixed garden pot.”

Salwitz and Chapman like dark-leaved varieties of euphorbia as well as coral bells like ‘Obsidian’ and ‘Purple Ruffles’. To keep your garden from feeling like a black hole, however, Salwitz and Chapman suggest pairing dark beauties with brighter leaves, which act as an uplight or high contrast.



foliage plants

Festival™ Raspberry’s delicious foliage is offset by the soft green Blue Storm agapanthus foliage.

Vary plant forms

“Form refers to the overall size and shape of a plant, using terms such as mounding, columnar, vase-shaped or prostrate,” write Chapman and Salwitz in Fine Foliage. “Adding contrast in form can be used to break up an otherwise predictable composition …”

This is where tall or architecturally striking plants come in. In Fine Foliage’s recipe “A Change of Pace,” agapanthus foliage serves as an ideal contrast to golden bamboo’s tall, willowy feathers and aeonium’s thick, fleshy carpet.

For a graceful, rounded, fountain effect,  try using basal-branching Festival™ Burgundy.


Blue Storm agapanthus

Even when not in bloom, Storm™ agapanthus adds interest to any bed with their interesting seed pods


fine foliage

Festival Burgundy adds a striking touch to any garden


Companion plants

Tropicanna canna planted with sedum ‘Autumn Joy’


shade garden

This simple woodland garden contains a lovely mixture of foliage shapes and forms


great foliage container plants

Pacific Sunrise and Sunset Coprosmas are easy to grow and with their shiny variegated foliage, add instant color to any setting or container.


Lily of the Nile

Blue Storm’s spiky foliage contrasts nicely with its and soft blooms.

Contrast textures

“In garden terms, we use the word ‘texture’ to describe a surface, both visual and how it feels to the touch,” Chapman and Salwitz write. “Without the contrast of different textures, the composition will look unexceptional.”

In the recipe “Jewel Box,”  Festival Burgundy cordyline’s long, narrow, strip-like leaf inks a bold, dark line across a mound of ‘Gay’s Delight’ and ‘Freckles’ coleus, Persian shield and golden Hinoki cypress.

“Probably the biggest mistake home gardeners make is falling in love with plants that have soft, fluttering leaves or frilly foliage,” said Gardening Guide Marie Iannotti. “Borders need spiky phormiums and big-leaved ligularia and bananas.” Many of the bolder, spikier plants aren’t hardy in cold climates, she noted, but they can be brought indoors, either as houseplants or stored dormant.

And finally, variation in plant texture is important as well.  To achieve a harmonic feel to your garden, it’s best to avoid extremes in texture, but some variation adds a nice touch.


A great mixture of textures in a small garden bed.


fine foliage plants

Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz’s book, “Fine Foliage,” offers foliage combinations for every garden.







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One Response to Using Fine Foliage in Garden Designs

  1. Laurel January 8, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

    I love how you included that variation in plant texture is important. Our landscaping designers always emphasize to our clients how variations in texture can bring the landscape to life. We also try to use plants with varying heights in order to bring depth into the design.

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