What can a gardener do with a small area that he wishes to keep colorful and attractive during the entire growing season? The obvious solution is to plant annuals. .”Some areas” are the operative words as annuals tend to be shallow rooted and require more care in inhospitable areas. Also, replanting every year is time consuming and expensive.
Perennials are probably a better answer but the problem with perennials is their limited blooming season. In a small area it is difficult to have something blooming constantly. The types of perennials planted must be engineered very carefully and still it is possible to have only a few plants blooming at any given time. A few blossoms among a sea of green are not going to draw the eye.
A second solution that we don’t often think of is to plant for leaf color and texture. Colored leaf plants can planted on their own to assemble an intricate tapestry a nice foil for whatever perennial that is blooming at a given time. Hostas, for example are very useful but the green ones are only really interesting when they are in bloom. You can however find hostas in yellow, blue and even a shade called black. Variegated ones have various patterns of white and green or yellow and green. Some of the chartreuse hostas are like sunshine in a dark corner. The stems of ‘Red October’ provide a nice touch of red. Some leaves are textured, some shiny and some are almost fuzzy. The leaves are broad to very narrow and all sizes in between. Sizes range from the 6’ diameter mounds of ‘Sum and Substance’ to tiny ‘Estrelitta’ which reaches only 2 inches. A shade garden planted only in hostas can provide visual interest throughout the entire growing season.
Planting a few annuals and or perennials among a sea of hostas can provide added interest during different seasons. Pulmonaria or lungwort blooms in the spring and will provide a nice touch of cool blue to the garden. The silvery spots on the leaves are also a nice contrast with the yellow leafed hostas. ‘Raspberry Ice’ Pulmonaria produces a deep pink flower. The leaves are narrower and do not make the impact that the broader leafed species but the flowers are a wonderful shade of rose. Ferns make a nice textural contrast in spring, when the put up their tightly curled crosiers, as well as throughout the year. Impatiens is also effective growing among hostas and pansies will last well into the summer under the cool, semi-shade conditions that hostas favor.
Heuchera or coral bells come in so many leaf colors that they can be planted alone for an interesting bed. While they prefer well drained, moist soil most of them seem to grow quite well in our acid clay and ,once they are established, are quite drought tolerant. Some will grow in full sun but most prefer a moderate amount of shade. The orange hues are a bit more temperamental in my garden than some of the other colors. ‘Spotlight’, a chartreuse leaf with red central veining, is a particularly vigorous grower. ‘Purple Palace’, probably the best known of the Heucheras is a very fast growing plant that can be divided every 2-3 years.
The Dolce series bred by Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries is very tolerant to heat and humidity. The range of brilliant colors enables the gardener to plant a living tapestry. There are two purple/blacks in the series ‘Licorice’ and ‘Black Currant’ with ‘Black Currant’ having a silvery overlay. ‘Crème de Menthe’ and ‘Mocha Mint’ are both silvery. ‘Crème Brulee’ has a bronze leaf and ‘Key Lime Pie is chartreuse. The leaves of ‘Peache Melba’ range from peach through a deep orange. This seasonal color change in the leaves is typical of many huecheras.
There are so many shades of huecheras that that almost any effect can be achieved with them. Plant a black garden using some of the many shades of black huecheras. ‘Obsidian’ is said to be almost a true black with the shiny surface of its namesake. Team some of the blacks with silvery Artemisia or lambs ears for a black and silver garden. Team the plum shades with rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria) for a nice contrast of silver and purple reds. When the Campion blooms the rose red flowers make a stunning show against the leaves of both species. The red, pink and white flowers of the huecheras are an added bonus.
Artemesias are wonderful for a silvery background in sunny dry areas. ‘Brocade’ is a low growing type that has a beautiful leaf form. It strongly resembles its namesake against dark mulch. ‘Silvermound’ is a well-known variety that is also a fairly low grower. Artemisia vulgaris ‘Variegata’ reaches about 18 inches and has stunning green and yellow foliage. Care must be taken with some of the perennial artemesias for they propagate by runners and can be invasive. Team artemesias with the gold sedums for a silver and gold garden or add a specimen plant such as Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’ to a planting of various artemesias.
Sedums also can provide a great groundcover for a sunny area. There are so many different leaf shades and forms that they provide and endless supply visually interesting plants. Sizes range from ground covers to about 2 feet. Leaves can be round or needlelike and the color range of the leaves is astonishing. There are bright yellow sedums, bronze sedums, blue green ones, purple to almost black leaf colors, pink and just plain green. Plant them for their leaf color and texture and then enjoy the added bonus of flowers of yellow, pink and red.
If you are tired of deadheading and babying annuals and watching blooms fade on perennials in a couple of weeks give a thought to planning your garden around plants that have more to give than just flowers. The more subtle colors of leaves can be just as satisfying as the brighter shades of the flowers. Arrangements of leaf color and texture in a garden will keep an area interesting throughout the growing season.