Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles

Who says your garden needs to be green?

November 20, 2010
Marie Narlock

ONE OF THE quickest ways to make your garden more interesting and dramatic is to choose plants with unusual leaf colors. That's because it's the leaves of your plants that you see all the time and that make a lasting impact. Flowers are simply a short-term bonus. They are just visitors.

Don't think that the autumn leaves you raked up last week fill this requirement. Like flowers, autumn leaves are fleeting. Fall's reds and oranges are gorgeous and highly desirable, but if those leaves are green most of the year then they could use a contrasting friend beside them. The goal is to create gardens where there is interesting leaf color all year-round, not just in November.

Garden designers like to talk about two important leaf characteristics: color and texture. Their clients are often amazed to learn that flowers are far less important. Let's take an obvious example. A garden path lined with a mix of strappy green grasses, fleshy blue succulents and a deep burgundy groundcover is going to be interesting and colorful whether or not it's in flower. But what if that garden path is lined with, say, roses? For the few weeks or months that it's in bloom, those roses will be delightful -- fragrant and silky and lovely. But what about the rest of the year? Green. Very green. Those glossy green leaves you try so hard to keep rust off of do a nice job of blending into the landscape.

And that's OK, because not every plant has to have leaves that pop. In fact, mixing leaf colors is a bit like matching clothes: too much color and you end up looking like a clown. No plaids next to polka dots for you. Your garden should contain a solid backbone of green, with tastefully colorful accents to keep it from being blah. Think of colorful leaves as the exclamation points of your garden. An exclamation point used sparingly is good, but too many can make your space look busy.

Look around your garden. Are there areas that are solid green? Sometimes just a wee colorful addition -- a bluegrass, a bright white shrub -- will make all the difference.

The key is to find leaves that contrast with whatever is right next door. If you have a hedge of dark green Ceanothus, perhaps a rusty-hued grass in front would be a nice companion. If you have a shady corner filled with dark green, perhaps a variegated white-tinged leaf would brighten things up. In fact, it's often the multitude shades of green that can bring a shady corner to life.

The next time you're at the nursery, try to challenge yourself to avoid looking at flowers. Focus on the leaves instead. Will that yellow-leaved Spirea juxtapose nicely with your Helleborus? Will that burgundy Heuchera make your pathway pop? Would a small blue succulent look killer in the middle of your herbs? Of course, don't forget to choose plants that work for your climate and your exposure (sun, half-sun, shade). That dark purple Japanese maple may look stunning at the nursery, but if it needs shade it's going to fry on your exposed south-facing slope.

Here are a few plants to check out while you're at the nursery. Do you have a home for one of these colorful additions?

Basic black: Like that perfect little black cocktail dress, Sambucus "Black Lace" really dresses up your garden. This shrub, a relative of the common elderberry, will probably look less intensely black if it is in blasting sun, so tuck it into a dappled-light corner. Its leaves truly look like black lace, deeply cut and practically frilly. This shrub can grow up to 10 feet tall, so don't be afraid to use it in the background of your garden.

Physocarpus opulifolius "Diablo," or ninebark, is another brunette beauty. This shrub has deep purple-black leaves that turn brownish purple when the weather warms up in summer. Extremely hot weather may cause it to green up a bit. Similarly, Ceanothus "Tuxedo" has nearly black foliage. Unlike our native Ceanothus shrubs, this plant will require some summer water. Give it full sun and good drainage for its dark foliage to shine.

Wonderful white: From fragrant Artemesia to common dusty millers, white is a winner. It's bright and high contrast, so a little goes a long way. Check out the very white and very unique Centaurea gymnocarpa if you want to see an ultrawhite plant. Its leaves are feltlike and divided.

Give this 2-foot-tall shrub room to spread out or plan on regularly nipping at its white arms, since it will spread out beyond 5 feet.

Another white contender is Salvia apiana, our native white sage. This evergreen -- or everwhite -- shrub grows to around 3 or 4 feet tall and sends up spikes of bee-loving flowers. This is the plant that our native American predecessors used for smudge sticks. It is intensely fragrant, unusual and beautiful in an earthy way.

Some whites are more subtle, leaning almost toward yellow. These include the sedge family of grasslike plants that come in a variety of variegation.

Carex morrowii Aurea-variegata is an excellent choice for cooler, shadier spots that need some brightening up. This sedge has thin arching leaves that are medium green with a bright yellowish-white stripe down the center of each blade. On a half-lit pathway, this plant serves as a little flashlight.

Unbeatable blue: Blue is in, from the low tubular Senecio succulents to the cultivars that come from our native festuca grasses. Check out festuca glauca "Elijah Blue," a diminutive grass that you can tuck in almost anywhere. Intense sun will bleach out the blues a bit, so find a dappled light spot for this low bunch grass. Helictotrichon sempervirens is a larger and more common bluegrass. This is an excellent everblue addition to any border.

Brilliant burgundy: Step aside, Japanese maples, because there are a whole host of other red-leaved contenders out there. For hot dry sites, it's hard to beat the Cotinus group. These shrubs or small trees, commonly called smoke bush because of their unusual flowers, come in an array of dark-leafed colors, from the intensely dark "Velvet Cloak" to the larger-leafed "Grace." They are easy and fast-growing, thriving in poor soil and, once established, require little water.

For lower-growing, deep burgundy accents, there are many Heucheras, or coral bells, from which to choose. Coral bells come in a multitude of leaf colors, all growing to about 2 feet tall. Once you get to know this plant you will be hooked. Besides, how can you resist a coral bell called "Cathedral Windows," "Chocolate Veil," "Velvet Night" or "Palace Purple?"

Another excellent low-growing burgundy plant is the succulent Aeonium arboreum "Atropurpureum." Gardeners have glommed onto the beauty and climate-appropriateness of succulents, which demand little water and provide intense color and texture. Nurseries carry an increasing number of these low-stress plants, which are sure to create instant interest to your garden or windowsill.

So when you're looking to increase the drama in your garden, just remember: flowers are fleeting, but leaves are lasting.

The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.

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