This time of the year, I really start appreciating foliage in the garden. As the heat of the summer drags on, many flowers begin to fade, but foliage just keeps on giving and giving day after day, week after week. It is hard to build a garden entirely around flowers that look good all season long, but start with a solid foundation of great looking leaves, and you have a garden that you can rely on without a lot of fuss and bother. We all know the usual suspects when it comes to foliage plants—hostas, coleus, and heuchera—but here are some of my favorites that are a little more off the beaten path.
Blue shadow fothergilla (Fothergilla × intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’, Zones 5–8). There is a lot to love about this little shrub: the showy bottle-brush white flowers in the spring, the astonishingly brilliant fall color. But my favorite feature is the incredible powder-blue color of the leaves. Putting the plant in part shade ensures the best leaf color, and that pale hue really brightens up a dark spot in the garden.
Gold-leaved white poplar (Populus alba ‘Richardii’, Zones 3–8). This yellow-leaved version of the white poplar is a great shrub or small tree, with bright yellow-green leaves that are bright white on their backs. It makes a brilliant statement in the garden and is wonderful to add to flower arrangements. I like pruning my plant back hard each year to encourage it to send out lots of long stems of colorful leaves.
I love sunflowers, so how about a sunflower with great foliage? The silver-leaved sunflower (Helianthus argophyllus, annual) has the same sunny yellow bloom you are used to, just paired with fuzzy silver leaves. Extremely tolerant of heat and drought, this is a tough plant. It’s also a great one for wildlife: pollinators love the flowers, and birds adore the seeds that come later.
Great foliage can be green too. This picture isn’t from a garden, but rather shows a mass of native ferns I found while hiking in northern Michigan. It is a scene well worth recreating in the garden—a soothing, green tapestry that will look good all season long. See our plant guide to wood ferns here.
Speaking of terrific green foliage, what about topiary? This scene from the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, shows the creative possibilities of having a few shrubs and some pruning sheers. Many large topiaries like these are too much work for most of us, but one or two small creations can bring a lot of interest year-round.
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