Between the Rows

Between the Rows: foliage plants hold a garden together

When people think of the ornamental garden, their first thought is of flowers, but it is foliage that holds a garden together. Flowers on naked stems would not be as lovely as they are when surrounded by foliage: leaves of various shapes and in various shades of green ranging from almost white, to almost blue, to almost red, as well as deep green. We take foliage for granted, but it can be used to increase the interest of the garden and sometimes be a real show stopper.

Hostas are one of the most familiar and popular foliage plants. When on a garden tour of Seattle and environs in 2011, I visited the amazing gardens of Michael Shadrack, author and hosta expert. In his garden, the full range of hosta possibilities was on display, from the plant stand on his deck that held potted miniature hostas, to the lush beds of hostas where variegated, blue, green and chartreuse hostas mingled beneath the dappled shade of tall trees.

Shadrack explained that there are several reasons for the hostas’ popularity. They are easy to grow in fertile, moist-but-well-drained soil, many are hardy in our climate, they thrive in shade or partly shady areas and are fairly tolerant of short periods of drought or flood. They do produce flower stalks, but people usually do not grow them for the flowers. One caveat: deer love hostas!

To illustrate the range of color and form, we saw Blue Mouse Ears that have tiny blue-green leaves. They grow in neat mounds 8 inches tall and bloom in midsummer. They grow well in containers as well as the garden. Other blue hostas include the gigantic Blue Angel, 3 feet tall and wide, and the medium-sized blue First Frost with gold margins that age to cream

An interesting 20-inch tall variegated hosta is Remember Me, which has golden centers with a green edge in spring, but changes over the season until the center is white with a narrow margin of blue green.

They grow so vigorously that hosta growers often have divisions to give away. Shadrack calls it a friendship plant because it is so easy to share.

Caladiums are another shade-loving foliage plant. No flowers. This is a summer bulb that can be carried over during the winter, or you can just treat it like an annual. Last year, I grew two large pots of red and green caladiums on either side of the cottage ornee door. I find it so hard to resist shades of red, but this year I am ordering White Queen from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs. The large leaves are mostly white with red veins. I think the white foliage will be more attractive and more eye catching in the cottage’s shade.

Moonlight is the whitest of the Brent and Becky caladiums, but there are others with white speckles and veins, and others in shades of green and red or pink. Caladiums are really dramatic plants that are not hard to grow. If you grow caladiums, or any plant, in a pot, make sure you water the pot every day during the summer. Pots, especially terra cotta pots, dry out very quickly in summer heat and breezes.

Heucherellas are a fairly new plant on the foliage scene. Heucherellas are a cross between heucheras, coral bells and tiarella (foam flower). I like heucherellas because they have a more substantial flower than regular coral bells. Even though they do bloom, it is the colors and markings of the foliage that attract most people. And variety there is.

Most heucherellas prefer well-drained, humusy soil and some shade, but others are quite tolerant of full sun.

Cracked Ice is a new variety this year with blue and green toned foliage with dramatic veining. In spring and fall, there is a silvery pink overlay making it very difficult to describe this dark foliaged plant.

Another new entry is Fire Frost, whose yellow foliage has a frosted red center. This is a smaller plant, only 10 inches tall and with a spread of 18 inches. It will bloom from July into September.

For a very different form of foliage, there is Hakonechloa, an 18-inch ornamental grass that bends and sways gracefully. I think it has a very oriental look about it. H. Aureola was the Perennial Plant Association Plant of the year in 2009. It has become very popular and is a lovely edging in a shady bed.

Panicum virgatum Northwind is this year’s Plant of the Year. This is another grass, but this switch grass variety is notable for its very upright 5-foot-tall growth. It prefers sun, but can tolerate some light shade. The blue-green foliage turns golden in the fall.

Looking at the PPA Plant of the Year choice is always a good idea because it chooses plants that are not only beautiful, but dependable in a wide variety of circumstances. Brunnera Jack Frost, chosen in 2012, has pretty forget-me-not flowers in spring, but it is the season-long frosted foliage that makes it desirable.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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