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Using Plants with Foliage Interest

Steve Silk gets creative in garden design. By choosing plants of different types, shapes, colors and sizes, you can turn your own garden plan into a beautiful piece of art work.

Many gardeners know the basic elements of a good garden: soil, sunshine and water. But the fourth element – garden design – can be more of a challenge. Whether designing a landscape or gardening in containers, it all starts with the plants, the building blocks of any garden. Plants that are tropical or have beautiful blooms definitely make a statement, but how long will they last?

When people think of gardens, they think of flowers, but flowers come and go, says garden designer and author Steve Silk. "The foliage is really what creates the framework and structure of any garden."

Leaf shape

When building that framework, color, texture and form are important design elements. However, to start, Silk recommends narrowing the scope by concentrating first on each plant's foliage shape. Break it down into three separate kinds of leaves: rounded types (figure A) which cover a wide range of sizes;

linear leaves like this Carex (figure B);

and complex leaves like this pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) (figure C).

Of course, there are leaves that can be a combination of these three characteristics. The key is to identify the general shape of the leaf and then decide how to use it in garden design. "When I'm combining different shapes, what I like is to think of one of two things," says Silk. "I want to celebrate their sameness or delight in their difference. So I want to work with contrast or harmony and shapes that are alike or very different."

Leaf size

Contrast and harmony can go together too, like two plants both with rounded leaves but different in size. When it comes to foliage in the landscape, size does matter.

"Another thing that I like keep in mind when I'm working with contrast is the idea of scale," says Silk. "I like to have lots of smaller leaves in the front and move on through the small leaves up to really large leaves up at the top of my composition."

Use bold tropical foliage to create dramatic settings. "The goal throughout the garden is to create little vignettes, little groupings of plants that work really well together," says Silk. Eventually the entire garden will be planted as each smaller grouping is completed.

To find out how much form or texture your garden has, take a few black and white photos. A distinguished vignette will have contrasting and similar shapes that work well together.

Experimenting with containers

It takes experimentation to apply the idea of working with different types of foliage in order to create a long-lasting framework for your garden. An easy way to learn about that is by working with plants in pots.Containers (figure D) are easy to move, replace, rearrange, turn and tweak, giving you lots of practice to make them look good in an area. Silk recommends starting with a basic three-plant recipe, combining linear, rounded and complex leaves to provide the contrast. Even without a single flower, the framework of the foliage provides plenty of structure and beauty.

Once you feel comfortable playing around with potted plants, apply the same principle to the landscape. Try placing the pot into an empty space in the garden border to experiment with texture. Silk uses containers extensively throughout his yard and patio, but the effect is so seamless it makes it difficult to pinpoint the location of the pots. Instead, what stands out is the texture and color from both flowers and foliage.

Leaf color

Color adds vibrance and visual stimulation to a garden but is often a personal choice. Foliage color can add lasting structure. To add contrast, use the dimension of color in leaf combinations. Silk combines burgundy-purple perilla with chartreuse elephant ear (Xanthosoma) (figure E). Echoing these colors throughout his garden are gold forsythia blooms, yellow angel trumpet flowers (Brugmansia) and cranberry tinges of salvia.

For further foliage finesse, group similar leaves in one place as they can help to define garden space. "I like using foliage to create different environments in the garden," says Silk. In his tropical area, he has the bold foliage of bananas and cannas, while in another area, he can enjoy the fine texture of ornamental grasses like Miscanthus 'Morning Light' (figure F).

One thing that won't be left behind in a garden linked by leaves is the feeling of cohesiveness and comfort. By using round, linear and complex leaves as the basic building blocks, the framework of the yard can grow and change. That's how garden design begins to take shape.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Garden design is a very forgiving art, and just because a plant doesn't work in one setting doesn't mean you can't pull it up and use it in another. The idea is to have fun with experimentation.


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