Texture and Foliage

Adding variety to your garden

Jeff Amberg

Just as it is “hard to see the forest for the trees,” it is sometimes “hard to see the garden for the foliage!” How often do you really pay attention to the subtle details in the landscape? The next time you are sitting in a friend’s driveway, study the minute details in the garden. I find lots of gardening inspiration sitting in traffic. Look around — how many different leaf textures do you see? How many different shades of green, silver, white, or blue can you observe in the different types of foliage? Try it. I think you will be amazed at the variety and inspiration in the plantings around you.

Not all gardens get their beauty from flowering plants. Many garden designs rely completely on texture and foliage to achieve their beauty; in fact, most formal gardens incorporate very little color in the overall design. The plant varieties are limited, so each variety must have something to add to the palette. When designing a formal garden, it is vital that plant texture, foliage shape and color, and “movement” of the plant be considered to achieve the desired effect. 

In an informal garden design, many more varieties are chosen. If foliage and texture are considered for this type of design, the end result will be much more pleasing and interesting. One of my beloved gardening mentors once told me, “Flowers fade, but foliage lasts a long time.” How true this is in the Midlands during our hot summers and colder winters.

So now that we have turned our focus to plant texture and foliage, let’s examine all  aspects of different types of plants. First, let’s look at trees since they are usually the most expensive permanent component of a garden. Trees add interesting texture with their bark and leaves, and many varieties contribute a visual punch to the design.

The first tree that comes to mind is river birch (Betula nigra) as it contains many intriguing visual aspects. River birch bark is light colored, which is easy to notice, and peels continuously, adding constant change to the garden vignette. Long after the leaves and blooms of spring, summer, and fall have disappeared, the beautiful and interesting bark of this large tree becomes the focal point of the landscape. River birch also adds movement to the garden as the leaves and branches sway in the slightest wind. The roots of a river birch are shallow, which limits its use in very small gardens. 

Do not plant near a hardscape, such as a driveway or terrace, because the shallow roots will eventually pop up the bricks or stone. River birches are fast growers and are best planted in a large space in the garden, preferably near a water source as it is a very thirsty tree. It is best planted in a boggy area, and the tree’s love for water will help keep the wet area more manageable. A favorite variety for Zone 8 is “Heritage,” which is a multi-trunked variety that can grow up to 50 feet. If you have the space, a group of three of these specimens in each corner of the garden is a stately tactic to define the perimeter.

Another choice would be common bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). The bald cypress is a large, deciduous tree with a straight trunk and pyramidal growth habit. This variety is very happy growing in extremely wet areas but will adapt easily to dry conditions as well. These trees are effective planted as a specimen or in a row to provide a privacy screen in a large space. The trunk is protected by reddish brown bark, which exfoliates in long thin strips. The leaves are also interesting — these dark green needles grow in a pyramidal form at the end of each branch and remind me of ‘Cephalotaxus’ needles. Two cultivars to consider are ‘Michelson,’ which is a narrow variety with blue-green foliage, or ‘Peve Minaret,’ which is a compact dwarf variety that grows to 10 feet.

Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrata) is another interesting tree to consider growing for its bark texture and foliage. This tree is a popular choice for parking lots and parks because of its quick growth and beautiful shape. It is a wonderful selection for a large garden and can grow to be 60 feet, providing good shade under its vase-like shaped canopy. The red-brown bark in its early years will eventually turn to gray-brown as it reaches maturity. Its beautiful fall color has leaves that range from yellow to orange to brown, and even some occasional hues of red and purple. This tree is very tolerant of urban conditions, which makes it a good choice in downtown Columbia. Two cultivars to consider are ‘Green Vase’ and ‘Ogon.’ Visit Columbia garden centers and nurseries this fall not only to see what the centers have to offer, but also to enjoy the fall color of this wonderful tree.

Let’s look at some interesting shrubs to add to the landscape for foliage and texture. Fatsia japonica is a great plant to choose in the Midlands as its large, dark-green, palmated leaves add a tropical flare to the garden design. It thrives in light shade and is a manageable size with mature height reaching 6 feet. It responds beautifully to hard pruning in early spring if it gets out of shape or grows too tall for its space. 

Its “flower” is actually a seedpod. Groups of small, white spheres appearing on the top branches eventually open up into Sputnik shaped clusters, and the birds enjoy the seeds when they mature and turn black. The white clusters are beautiful in the evening when illuminated by subtle outdoor, low-voltage lighting. This is definitely a variety to include in the garden design for its sturdy, green, interesting foliage.

No Southern garden is complete without a Pittosporum. A top choice for adding interesting foliage to the garden design would be variegated Pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira ‘Variegatum’). This is an attractive, mounding evergreen shrub with white, gray, and light green variegated foliage. ‘Variegatem’ is a good choice to use as a border, hedge, or accent in the garden. Use it in front of a darker green shrub, such as Viburnum macrophylla ‘Awabuki’ to really bring out the contrast of the variegated foliage. This type of Pittosporum is readily available in Columbia nurseries and garden centers.

The smaller elements in a garden are the perennials. While most perennials are chosen for their gorgeous and varied blossoms, here are some suggestions for interesting foliage and texture.

Number one on my list is Heuchera. This tough, leafy perennial comes in so many different leaf color combinations that it is hard to choose. We use many of these varieties in container plantings for the fall and winter because their leaf color and texture adds so much interest to a fall and winter combination. They are also well suited in the perennial border or as an accent plant in the shrub border. Choose these beauties based on their leaf color and not their bloom. Most varieties mature at less than 12 inches tall, so they are easy to tuck in a small spot in the garden. Some varieties to peruse are ‘Plum Pudding,’ ‘Fire Alarm Coral,’ and ‘Caramel.’ 

Silver is a very desirable and unusual color to add to the Southern garden. It is especially beautiful and cooling to use in a green and white scheme. My first choice for adding silver foliage is Artemisia, named for Artemis, who was said to shoot silver arrows, and my favorite variety is ‘Powis Castle.’ Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’ is a small perennial with frilly, silver leaves. The blooms are rare and insignificant, so it is sought after mainly for this interesting and unusual foliage. ‘Powis Castle’ prefers a thin soil that drains quickly, so it is a great choice for an area in the garden that receives good morning sun but might not have the most fertile soil. Artemesia thrives in the same environment as many herbs, so it is an excellent choice to add to the herb garden for constant color and interesting texture. It is also very pretty to include in a bed of hydrangea. The beautiful blue blooms of the hydrangea blend perfectly with the silver foliage of Artemesia ‘Powis Castle.’

There are also a few easy to grow annuals that boast unique leaf color and texture. I like to include choices in container plantings just as I would in a perennial or shrub border. My number one go-to is Plectranthus –– commonly known as ornamental oregano or Swedish ivy. This oregano is non-edible, so don’t be confused by its common name. Plectranthus is native to sub-Saharan Africa, making it extremely drought tolerant — yet another reason to plant it in Zone 8. Plectranthus is a vigorous grower and thrives in full sun to partial shade. It is grown for its fleshy, “pinked” edged, white and green variegated leaves. When choosing it for a container planting, plant it behind other plants so that it weaves its way through the other plants included in the container. It is tough and thrives all season long, adding a fresh component to the plant combination.

Caladiums, grown strictly for their varied and dramatic variegated leaf color combinations, are another of my top choices. Caladiums are commonly known as angel wings, which is a perfect description of the shape of the leaves. Caladiums grow from tubers, which can be lifted and divided each year before the first hard frost. Most varieties prefer partial to full shade and require consistent moisture during the warmest days of the summer. All parts of these plants are poisonous, so be careful and mindful of where you plant them. The color combinations are mind-boggling, and I have never seen one that I did not covet. They are wonderful additions to container plantings and also beautiful in the garden. Make sure you plant them in large groups to be the most effective. Some varieties to consider are ‘Miss Muffett,’ ‘Freida Hemple,’ and ‘White Christmas.’

This is just a smattering of the gorgeous plants and trees with interesting texture and foliage — there are literally hundreds more. Pay closer attention to your surroundings and make notes of combinations that appeal to you. Take those notes to your favorite garden center and choose plants that will change your wish list to reality. 


Gardening chores for the September gardener

September is a busy time in the garden, so carve out some time to spend in your favorite place!

Make sure to buy locally or order bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, for late fall planting. 

Buy Paper White bulbs to force for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year.

Divide and replant perennials such as daylilies, hostas, liriope, mondo, and iris. Make sure to water them in well to get them off to a good, healthy start.

Deadhead remaining perennials and annuals.

Pinch off the tops of begonias. Put them in a pitcher of water for two to three weeks until new roots sprout. Plant in light potting soil for fresh plants to enjoy throughout the fall and winter. Prune shrubs that have gotten out of shape. Prune out any dead branches.

Spray annuals and perennials with a light application of liquid fertilizer.

Examine camellias and sasanquas and treat any pests or disease.

Learn to “gib” camellias for spectacular blooms later this year. There are wonderful online videos and articles to teach this technique.

Begin bringing houseplants in for the cooler months. Examine them for pests and disease before bringing them in. Treat accordingly. Sometimes a good strong spray of water will get rid of any pests.


What’s blooming?

Abelia, butterfly bush, Crape myrtle, roses, black eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, daylilies, Chrysanthemum, blackberry lily, Begonia grandis, cardinal flower, spider lily, Dahlia, ginger lily, Hosta, Impatiens, Lantana, Plumbago, and Zinnia.

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