Use variegates singly or in small groups
Variegated plants, especially those with dramatic markings, are ideal as focal points in borders and landscapes. In shady sites, variegated creeping sedge (Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’, USDA Hardiness Zones 6–9), variegated creeping Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans ‘Stairway to Heaven’, Zones 3–7), and other shade-tolerant multicolors are great for brightening things up. Wherever you find expanses of solid-green foliage in your garden—in a border or in a patch of ground covers—an easy way to add more visual interest is to replace some of those plain-green plants with groupings of variegated perennials or individual variegated shrubs.
Most variegates work best where you see them up close: along a path, in a foundation planting, or near the front of a bed or border. They’re excellent in pots and planters, too, because you can admire delicate pinstriping or tiny speckles without having to stoop over. Strongly variegated plants can show off well at the back of a large border, but at a greater distance—roughly 15 feet or more—even distinctly marked white-variegated plants tend to have a hazy, grayish appearance, while those with gold markings have an overall yellow-green look.
In any site, single specimens or small groupings are usually most satisfying. Mass plantings of a particular variegate or a mélange of many different variegated plants in one area may thrill foliage fanatics, but to most gardeners, the effect appears overwhelmingly chaotic.
‘Kumson’ variegated forsythia
Photo/Illustration: Todd Meier
‘Variegatus’ mock orange
Photo/Illustration: Nancy J. Ondra
‘Kwanzo Variegata’ tawny daylily
Photo/Illustration: Janet M. Jemmott