Plant With a Strategy of Lessons from the Leaf

This perennial border consists of different shapes and sizes. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

One of the most overlooked attributes in the garden is the leaf. When we think about the many reasons for having a garden, we almost always list flowers and color. Yet, flowers and colors are transitory. Perennial plants that flower longer than six weeks (such as Helleborus x hybridus) are relatively rare, leaving us with a lot of weeks to contemplate the leaves. The truth is that eventually, when it comes to gardens, it comes down to the leaf.

I became aware of leaf importance towards the beginning of my gardening career because I owned a long line of azaleas extending the width of my garden. Not only did the blaze of magenta-colored blooms threaten to blind me, their disappearance left me regarding a long row of flowerless azaleas throughout the rest of the year. I learned that, for 48 weeks of the year, the small leaves of azaleas added little interest to the garden, leaving me to wonder on the value of having azaleas at all. Somehow, four weeks of blazing color and 48 weeks of boredom didn’t compute in my gardening mind.

There are primarily three shapes of leaves that concern us as gardeners: linear, lacy, and those that come in blocks. When planting different shapes, contrast is the name of the game. For example, planting a Hosta (linear) beside Aspidistra elatior (the “Cast Iron Plant,” also linear) creates a boring combination with little visible difference between the two. However, combine some ferns (lacy) with the Hosta (linear) and our eyes will discern both shapes.

Design the foliage garden—and most of the time that is what you are working with—by choosing plants of divergent leaf shapes. Considering the color of various greens is also important as there is a wide variation among the garden greens. Pay attention to chartreuse because it’s a color that our eye rapidly picks up as it shimmers against the darker greens of most leaves.

Among the block-leafed plants, consider size. So many of the plants, such as azaleas, we use in the garden are quite small-leafed. Don’t spurn a plant because its leaves are small; rather, provide a contrast. This might be time for a bold-leafed plant, such as Colocasia. A strategically placed Agave or Canna can brighten up many sunny spots. If you have the room, a Musa basjoo, the hardy banana, might fill the bill.

A windmill palm will break up the monotony of several Camellia sasanqua planted together. Photo by Kit Flynn.

Lacy-leafed plants are numerous, including ferns and many palms. Lily foliage is lovely and must remain in the garden long after the blooms have gone if it is to bloom the following year. The lovely spring grass Nassella tenuissima, has a lovely see-through appearance that only enhances those plants located near it.

A variety of shapes adds needed contrast to the garden. Photo by Kit Flynn.

I love the delicate, albeit solid, foliage of the Intersectional “Itoh” peonies – and remember, after peonies have finished their spring blooming period, this is what you will see. Unlike the herbaceous peonies that look worn out after blooming, the Itoh peonies hold their shape. Throughout the remainder of the growing season, it is this that adorns the garden.

Linear-leafed plants include many ornamental grasses, which are somewhat out of favor now, along with daylilies, Siberian Iris, Aspidistra elatior, carex and many hostas.

When planning the perennial garden, concentrate on these three basic shapes. Provide contrast when employing these shapes so you don’t end up looking at a boring line of azaleas. Surround one azalea with leaves of different shapes, allowing them to take over when the azalea has finished blooming and is no longer the star in the garden.

Obviously, you will also consider color because some leaves, such as those on many Heucheras are not green. Canna ‘Tropicana’ comes in a riot of tropical colors while many cultivars of Japanese maples bear a reddish coloration. Variegated leaves also relieve the eye of a continuous green, while those bearing golden-green leaves add a degree of brightness. Remember that golden-green leaves are at their most dramatic in the spring as many will turn a darker green when the temperatures rise.

Various and textures and shades of green get the eyes to stop and really see. Photo by Kit Flynn.

One of the tricks of a well-planted garden is getting the eye to stop. For instance, one Japanese maple works whereas a long row of Japanese maples is stultifying. While we like to think of the garden as being a riot of colors, most of the time it’s green, so it’s up to us to employ the color green in our favor. As there are lots of greens, you might consider placing a yellow green near a darker green, interspersing them perhaps with some colorful heucheras.

Treasure the silver and gray leafed plants as they serve to counterbalance so many green-leafed plants. They will also complement many flower colors. Use variegated plants as accents but use them judiciously as a garden of variegated plants creates a blurred picture. This is one of the reasons my field of hostas does not work well in my garden. I should have spread them around, contrasting them with solid green plants of a different shape.

So, my suggestion when ordering plants—and what else is there to do as spring approaches?—is this: By all means consider the flowers but remember, what you are really buying is the leaf.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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1 Comment on "Plant With a Strategy of Lessons from the Leaf"

  1. A lot of NC natives flower for 8 or more weeks, especially late summer into fall when we can be outside a little more without melting. That would have been a good suggestion. Many of those have tall structure too and make a nice background for your various foliage.

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