By Sean Conway
Shade-loving Japanese painted ferns are a great way to add leafy drama to a garden area where flowering plants might not thrive
After years of landscape projects I have come to realize that the areas of my yard I like most are those that require the least amount of work.
That is not to say these areas are dull, boring and devoid of interesting plants. On the contrary! The areas I am talking about tend to be some of the most dramatically planted areas of my yard, always noticed by visitors, and are filled with perennials and shrubs that are bold and hard to miss. And they look good throughout the season.
One feature these preferred spots have in common is that almost all the plants were chosen for their foliage rather than for their flowers. That is not to say that some of these plants don't flower, but rather that the flowers take a back seat to the leaves.
Plants grown for their foliage don't require nearly the amount of maintenance that plants grown for their flowers do. They don't require staking, dead heading and cutting back; and, best of all, they don't get overlooked when their flowers fade.
As with blooming plants, there are multitudes of choices for interesting foliage. Trees, shrubs and perennials each have their foliar superstars that rival their blooming counterparts. Some prefer shade, such as the glossy, heart-shaped leaves of ginger or the silver and red Japanese painted ferns. Others, such as the variegated red-stemmed dogwood or the deep burgundy leaves of a crimson frost birch, prefer full sun.
When I plant areas with perennial foliage plants, I tend to plant them densely so their leaves shade the soil beneath, making it difficult for weeds to grow. This trick works especially well with large foliage plants such as hosta.
I have also had great success employing this technique to cover bare ground in an area of my garden that is both shady and damp, conditions few plants are happy with. The variegated form of Petasites japonicus, commonly called butterbur, loves these conditions. Although it spreads very quickly forming a big colony, in areas where it can easily be kept in check it works like a charm. It's large cream and green leaves really brighten up a dark spot.
Foliage plants can also be used as accents to highlight particular spots in the garden. One of my favorites for this is the pagoda dogwood, Cornus alternifolia 'Argentea.'
This small tree reaches 10 to 15 feet in height and 12 to 20 feet in width. Its distinctive horizontal branching is why my kids call this tree the "wedding cake tree." Hardy from zone 3 to zone 7, it forms distinctive layers of branches covered with leaves that are green, white and tinged with pink, giving an overall appearance of a white frosted cake.
This lovely tree makes a perfect accent to the end of a bed, or in a mixed woodland area. It's form and color help it stand out against ordinary green backgrounds.
Foliage plants need not be flashy to stand out. One spot in my garden that gets a lot of attention is a planting of Ophiopogon 'Nigrescens,' or black mondo grass. This low growing herbaceous perennial sports narrow deep purple grass-like leaves that appear black.
It spreads slowly but will eventually form a nice wide patch. In late spring racemes of white bell-shaped flowers are borne on black stems slightly above the foliage. These flowers give way to black glossy berries in the fall.
Hardy to zone 6, black mondo grass make the perfect companion to silver leaved plants, and just this past week end I planted some in front of a silver leaved olive for just that reason.
When you are considering what to plant in your yard this season, why not let a few foliage plants do some of the heavy lifting?
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