A garden with more drama and depth is just a few dark-colored plants away

Scatter them throughout.  Adding just a few 'Purple Emperor' decums ( Sedum  'Purple Emperor', Zones 3-9) to this grouping makes the composition more dynamic.

Photo/Illustration: 
Ann E. Stratton

Not all landscapes need to be bright and cheery—we gardeners, in fact, crave more complexity, even a note of gravitas, in our gardens. Deep, richly colored foliage brings drama to a garden like nothing else, and few flowers have the stop-and-look-at-me impact that black flowers do. Adding a few moody hues to your plant palette is often a slick design move, but there are a few tricks to doing it well.

As in any landscape design, a successful planting is never about just one plant; it is in the combining of many plants that artistry is achieved. Don’t be swayed by the faux drama you see in parking-lot plantings, where concentric stripes of dark-leaved plants butt against long stripes of bright-blooming annuals—this is an easy cheat. It’s far better to mix and mingle black plants throughout your beds and borders. If you take a stagger-and-scatter approach to planting and adopt the design guidelines that follow, you’ll have a garden that is bold but subtle, elegant yet playful, and altogether more enticing. 

That is the magic of black. Come to the dark side— you won’t regret it.  

Expand your definition of black

It’s important to define what we mean by “black.”  Few plants are actually black; most of what we call  “black” in the garden are actually shades of deep red,  purple, brown, bronze, and—in a few instances— midnight blue.   

When playing with black plants,  opening up your palette is a must. A garden  using a strict range of only the blackest of the  black not only has painfully few plant options  but also looks murky. You’re better off letting the   entire range of darkness creep into your design.    

One plant that is the height of chic is ‘Red  Sensation’ cordyline (Cordyline australis ‘Red  Sensation’, USDA Hardiness Zones 10–11 )—a somber  fountain of reddish black foliage. It is the hint of  burgundy in its leaves that allows this perennial to  shine reflectively in a garden rather than absorb  light, as true black plants do. Black mondo grass  (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, Zones 6–11, ) is an example of one of these  light-absorbing plants. It’s a true black, and its  leaves suck in light, giving it a matte quality that  is almost aloof. When contrasted with a ground  cover that is more reflective, however, like ‘Ogon’  sedum (Sedum makinoi ‘Ogon’, Zones 6–9), the   combination is as cool as it is rambunctious.  

It's all in the combination

Green is the default color for foliage, so  when incorporating black plants, it’s important to  give thought to smoothly transitioning from the  greens of most plants to the darkness of your garden’s  star attractions. Some color pairings make  this task easier than others. Here are four that offer  plenty of contrast without ever looking overdone.  

 
 

Black and blue is stylish yet unexpected

Don’t be afraid of your garden looking  like a bruise—this combo is painless.  Adding a splash of black foliage to blue   flowers gives a punch to an otherwise  soft planting. Most black leaves have  undertones of blue and purple in them,  so these combinations are simultaneously  harmonious and bold. In this  combo, a darkly hued ColorBlaze®   Marooned™ coleus ( Solenostemon   scutellarioides ‘Marooned’, Zones  12–13) bridges the vastly different blues   of ‘Hot Waterblue’ lobelia ( Lobelia  erinus ‘Hot Waterblue’, annual), ‘Black  and Blue’ salvia (Salvia guaranitica  ‘Black and Blue’, Zones 7–10), and  ‘Munstead’ lavender (Lavandula  angustifolia ‘Munstead’, Zones 5–8).  

Black and chartreuse keeps the mood upbeat

Photo/Illustration: 
millettephotomedia.com

Using chartreuse as a planting companion is a way to use black without committing to a somber mood. one of my favorite pairs of black and chartreuse plants are actually siblings: Illusion® Midnight lace sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘NCorNSP011MNlC’, Zone 11) and Illusion® emerald lace sweet potato vine (I. batatas ‘NCorNSP012eMlC’, Zone 11). the shape of their foliage is exactly the same, but their high color contrast creates a wonderful tension, elevating any planting scheme.

Black and white is always chic

Photo/Illustration: 
Stephanie Fagan

Side by side, this high-contrast power couple amplifies each other’s best qualities: The black looks darker, and the white looks crisper. Here, the edgy foliage of ‘Blackout’ heuchera ( Heuchera ‘Blackout’,  Zones 4–9) ties up a blanc et blanc floral combo like a velvet bow. Coco Chanel would be proud. 

Black and silver sets a swanky vibe

Photo/Illustration: 
Ann E. Stratton

This is a moody combination—no doubt about it—but it’s an association that is exquisitely stylish and modern. Gray shines in gardens, creating an easy foil for leaves of many colors, but its talent is used to the fullest when it is mingled with darker  leaves. This combo is as high contrast as black and chartreuse, but rather than being cheerful, the gray component creates an elegance. Wormwood (Artemisia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) is a go-to best friend for many a dark leaf. Here, it mingles with ‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’, Zone 11) and ‘Red Sensation’ cordyline.

Don't go overboard

There is a reason black is a mainstay of fashion designers—it is always appropriate and other colors pop against it. The only real mistake one can make is creating a heavy-handed look better suited to an amusement park haunted house than a chic garden with gothic flair. Be sparing; be choosy. Don’t overuse your new dark power by making a landscape that smacks of a theme. Decide on a few black plants that will serve as the starring attraction of your outdoor space, then surround them with a supporting cast.

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