Garden Designers Roundtable – Designing with Foliage

What is the ‘Garden Designers Roundtable’?  First started in December 2009, a small group of us thought it would be fun, as professional landscape designers, to each write an article on the same topic (Do Designers Practice what they Preach), but each written from our own point of experience from different parts of the country.

It was an idea that was very well-received, so we wrote about another topic (Celebrating Regional Diversity), expanding our group with a few more designers.   Realizing this was so much fun, we decided to make it a monthly event, inviting 12 designers from our newly formed ‘Roundtable’.   It won’t always be the same 12 people, but will rotate among a group of 30 or so of us, as well as the occasional guest blogger.

Foliage is the topic for this month’s Garden Designer’s Roundtable, and what a topic it is!  I could write an entire book on Foliage, how on earth can I whittle it down to just one post?  I could write about my favorite foliage colors, shapes, or great color combos?  Where to start, where to start…

I know!  I’ll offer a little insight as to how I use foliage in my designs for maximum impact!1.  Mix it up with shapes

There are so many incredible leaf shapes and textures available (spikes, hearts, round, skinny, fat, teeny, huge, fuzzy, bumpy) so keep it interesting by mixing several together.

This combination has a ton of foliage shapes going on; the lacy texture of the Japanese Maple, the spots of the lance-shaped Pulmonaria, the ruffled Heuchera leaves and the spiky variegated Acorus.

Does it look like ‘too much’?  Not to me!  It’s actually a very cohesive and engaging grouping. Imagine this combination if the leaves were all the same shape – it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, would it?

This combination is totally different – not because it doesn’t have a mix of foliage shapes, but because it’s colors are all in the same green family.

Normally an all-green grouping might be a tad boring, but because the shapes of the leaves are so different it really works!

.Another way to mix foliage is to have the forms mimic one another – as these two plants do.  Each is a rosette – only one is large and grey while the other small and green.

And when you mix two totally different foliage shapes (and colors) together like this…you really make a statement. Black Mondo grass always looks fabulous against anything that’s light grey or chartreuse…especially when it’s strappy foliage is emphasized as well as it’s color.

2.  Mix it up with Variegated Foliage

Placing more than one variegated plant next to each other can be a bit risky, but when done right it can result in a stunning combination.

Many would think that placing two variegated plants so close together other would look chaotic, but because the foliage shapes are so drastically different (one leaf is quite large, while the other is small), and the third plant is a solid color which acts as the ‘neutralizer’, it works!

This combination also works because the colors are in the same green/grey family which creates a soothing effect, despite all the variegation going on!

This example, however, doesn’t work.

For one, the foliage shapes are too similar in size.

For another, the colors aren’t really blending very well with eachother.   Pass the Excederin…


Sometimes all you need is just one single variegated plant to really make a combination popas is the case with this ‘Emerald n Gold’ Euonymous mixed with the deep burgundy Ajuga and Corsican Hellebore.

3.  How to use (or not use) spiky plants

This type of plant has got to be the toughest sell for many of my clients.  So often, when I suggest a Phormium I hear “Oh…I like them and all, but can’t really see them in my garden” or my favorite, “They always look so angry!”

But when I show them how gorgeous they can look when placed just right, they end up loving them as much as I do! Especially when their leaves are back-lit by a setting sun…

When using plants of this size and shape, it’s important to plant softer, billowy plants near or at their feet.  By doing this, you still get the contrasting structural element (necessary to keep a garden interesting), yet it’ll soften its stark appearance.

Another trick with spiky plants?  USE THEM SPARINGLY!

They’re accents, not a method for keeping intruders out of your garden!  Can you say prison yard?

4.  Using foliage to accent a container

When choosing a plant for a container, I like to have at least one of the colors or shapes echo an element in the pot.  In this example, the soft burnt orange shades of the Oxalis, as well as the circular shape of the leaves, mimic the colors and shape of this pot.

When talking about uniting foliage and containers, I’m not necessarily talking about the plant that’s in the container.  he foliage of a complementary plant can just as easily placed near the container for a beautiful color echo, as is the case with this Coprosma ‘Pink Splendor’.

I love the ‘one plant per pot’ concept.   By planting a single variety in a container, you have the opportunity to really make an impact, ensuring the foliage of a particular plant doesn’t get lost with its neighbors.   And when the the plant and the pot fall within the same color range, a very serene feeling can be created.

Until then, please make sure to stop by my fellow designers at the Roundtable to read their thoughts on foliage!

Andrew Keys with Garden Smackdown

Christina Salwitz with the Personal Garden Coach

Debbie Roberts with A Garden of Possibilities

Ivette Soler with The Germinatrix

Pam Penick with Digging

Shirley Bovshow with Eden Maker’s Blog


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40 Comments

  • aloha rebecca,

    a very enjoyable read and informational as well, i love what you presented and the beautiful photographs are wonderful…i’m starting to enjoy reading this forum and will follow regularly

    plus i’m a real foliage freak also so this topic is right up my alley!

    • Thanks for such kind words, Noel! Really, really nice….and look forward to hearing from you in the future! Let’s hear it for Foliage!!

  • I love your insight on combining variegated plants. That always seems like such a challenge with plantings!

  • that is so cool! I totally did the same thing on my own to try to hold onto the last fading drops of fall…and here we are desperately looking forward to spring…

  • So let me get this straight…there are people who don’t like spiky plants?! Say it isn’t so! How is this possible? 🙂

    I would love to have the “prison yard” cordy trees surrounding my front garden! Of course I would have to mix it up a bit. Thanks for a fun post!

  • As far as I’m concerned this is Chapter One of your book on Foliage and a great one at that, Rebecca.

    The dos and donts are always a striking example that bring home the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.

    • Thanks Carolyn and Scott – hmmm…writing a book…might be in my future (though, not in the near future! Writing this post is plenty for me right now!)…thanks for your kind words!

  • Yet again you knock it out of the park Rebecca, great examples of illustrating ideas with the photos. I adore that last gray pot too!! You have an elegant flair. 🙂

    • Thanks Christina! I definitely tend to go for the understated when planting containers…and always love yours which are SOOOOO brimming with exuberant color and excitement….my drab little gray one would just PALE in comparison to yours!!

  • Oh no, that “prison yard” of phormiums! Excellent point about adding soft clouds of fine-textured plants around those spiky architectural plants. I went with the corollary in my post today, advocating for structural plants amid the fine-textured ones. Isn’t it great to read all the varying takes on the wonderful topic of Foliage?

  • I agree with Shirley – you’re a natural teacher on this subject! I got some great ideas and realize I’m probably not thinking about foliage as carefully as I could be.

    Really excellent post, Rebecca.

    • Shirley and Susan – thank you so much! I hope I don’t come across as ‘Now Class…this is how you do it…’, but I just can’t help get excited about telling others my little tricks and opinions….I guess that’s what a teacher does, though, right? That, and give detentions…. (which I’d definitely give to that person who planted the ‘prison yard’!!)

  • YES! Yes you should write a book on Foliage. I’ll add it to my wish list right now! Excellent post, and great use of do’s and don’ts. Beautiful pictures too!

  • Can you reveal which cultivar of blue-grey echeveria (at least, I think it’s an echeveria) you have pictured in concert with the smaller green sedum? It’s so pretty – I must have it – plant lust is rearing its pretty little head 🙂

    • Hi VW -All I know it’s an escheveria elegans…they came off the back of a pick-up truck 45 years ago when my parents first moved into their home. A guy was driving around, selling patio furniture door to door, and when they bought some they noticed he had a huge clump of these in his truck. Flash forward 45 years and these are it’s babies (they’re all OVER my garden) – they’re some of my very favorites!

  • I enjoyed reading about the painterly way you consider the color, form textures in the leaves. Buried in snow and cold, I’m thoroughly enjoying seeing and reading about plants in a warmer climate. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about color.

  • Rebecca,

    Your use of foliage is certainly daring and the rewards are beautiful. I liked that you included a few don’t photos; sometimes it’s easier to learn from those. Of course, I can’t imagine who would think the ‘prison yard’ was a do.

  • Your posts are always helpful, beautiful and funny (Just like you – HA!). Because of your stunning examples I’m going to run out and get some Pulmonaira. I’ve got just the right spot(s).

    • Hi Angela – you WON’T be disappointed with Pulmonaria. There’s some really cool varieties out there, too – some have blue flowers, some have purple…..good luck! And thanks for the sweet compliments!! 😉

  • Still reeling from the possibility that anyone wouldn’t like a phormium 😉 What beautiful combinations, and that last photo with the dark grey pot is a brilliant pairing of pot and plant.

  • Sweet,
    You are my idol.
    As I read your post, I’m nodding and saying “Yes… Yes! YES!”
    I LOVE that you don’t hold back, that you mix and contrast with elegance AND super cool flair. In your hands, foliage is the most incredible tool of expression.
    THANK YOU DOLL!
    XOIvette

    • Ivette – you are TOO much….It is YOU, my dear, who just ROCK THIS HORTICULTURE WORLD!! XXOO

  • Rebecca,
    You are a natural teacher. The examples for what not to do are great and amusing. Good sense of humor too!

    You really touched on some great points and backed them up with examples. I need to link directly to this post!
    Awesome.

    Shirley Bovshow
    Garden World Report Show

  • The contrast of the spiky plants are awesome, and we use them a lot in Austin! And, your examples of what doesn’t work is really helpful, too. Isn’t it amazing how a pic can demonstrate so much so quickly?

  • Great post! I love the “do” and “don’t” photos for your example of a specimen plant with the Phormium. That really punctuated your advice!

  • I’m laughing out loud at the spicky plant prison yard comment too. It’s a good point! Get it? Get it?

    I’m drooling over your Phormiums too… Tell clients who can’t handle them they can just trade gardens with me, k? Sure I could grow them in pots, but it’s not quite the same.

    Excellent post, as I knew it would be!

    • I’m glad so many of you thought my Prison Yard photo was a good one….always nervous submitting the ‘dont do this’ photos for fear the owner will come banging on my door!! But I agree – a picture is worth a thousand words! And I love your play on words, Andrew and Diana…they weren’t lost on me!!

  • I love spiky, sword-shaped plants, and prefer architectural plants in general, but that “prison” picture is just too funny!

  • Well done! I have thought about using Agave americana to keep the skunks at bay…but will have to reconsider. Matti

  • Great post, Rebecca! In Vancouver we have to get away with foliage often in our gardens and blooms can be elusive in winter (not this winter though). I remember a visit to Portland, Or, last year where the garden style seemed to be evergreen foliage based – and I loved it! Plant a few perennial around them and you basically have a beautiful low maintenance garden.

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