Think Contrast, Think Texture

Fatsia, Polygonatum, and Spigelia combination. Photo: Kit Flynn


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

We gardeners sometimes think way too much in terms of flowers when, perhaps, we should instead concentrate more on the color green. After all, it’s the color green that permanently resides in our gardens. I have written before about the importance of texture and contrast in the garden, but the longer I garden, the more important these two elements become.

The photograph accompanying this article, which I took recently, contrasts three plants: a Fatsia, a Polygonatum, and a Spigelia that’s beginning to flower. Note what attracts your attention when looking at that photograph: Your eye first lands on the lime-green variegated leaf of the Fatsia, then it wanders down to the dark-green variegated Polygonatum leaves, before settling on the red flowers of the Spigelia. Simply put, the green is here to stay while the red is transitory.

I grow lots of lilies. The foliage arrives before the first flowers. After the blooms fade, the leaves will be the lasting reminder that lilies occupied this spot. I will have at least three months of lily foliage and only three weeks of lilies. For me, this is no hardship as I find the lily plant to be very attractive.

My point is this: Foliage is of utmost importance as it’s what you see in the garden for most of the growing season, and it’s a feature we rarely consider when selecting plants for purchase. Consider the bearded iris: The flowers are lovely but fleeting, while the plant’s not-very-attractive foliage is what you see throughout the year. So you need to decide whether you want to live with that foliage during the growing season and beyond.

For the same reason, I find herbaceous peonies problematic. Their blooms are fabulous, but the wilting foliage afterward is more than I am willing to tolerate. I find that the Itoh peonies, the result of a marriage between the herbaceous and tree peonies, work better in my garden because the foliage remains a nice focal point after the plant’s spring flowering.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love flowers. After all, I passionately grow roses. Most of the time, however, I find myself observing the rose shrubs and not the flowers because, after all, a rose can bloom only so many weeks of the year. Depending on the time of year, I’m staring at the canes, not the flowers. Some shrub roses are more pleasing to the eye than, for instance, some hybrid teas. It’s up to you to determine what form you like.

The garden, as this photograph attests, comes in a variety of greens. As noted above, there is the yellow green of the variegated Fatsia, the bluer green of the Polygonatum, and the dark green of the Spigelia. The red flowers are a lovely accent for four of our year’s 52 weeks. If the Polygonatum and the Spigelia leaves were the same color, there would be no contrast between them, which would substantially decrease the level of visual interest.

Leaves come in different sizes and shapes, as evidenced in the photograph. The saw-tooth leaves of the Fatsia are relatively large; larger than the evenly shaped leaves of the Polygonatum and the Spigelia. Many of the leaves of plants we use in the garden are on the small side. Therefore, it is up to us to create contrast in the garden.

Small leaves, however, can vary in their leaf arrangement to generate contrast. One of my most expensive purchases, Acer palmatum Mikawa yatsubusa, has small leaves piled on top of one another, creating a mass of leaves so closely connected that it’s hard to discern where one ends and the next one begins. This Japanese maple is a showstopper, not because of flowers or color, but because of the texture provided by its leaf arrangement.

So, when you are considering buying a plant – and I hope you are – please do not concentrate solely on the flower and the fleeting color it will bring to the garden. Consider, in addition, the color of the leaves, its growth pattern and the shape of its leaves. These are the factors that will remain in the garden long after the flowers have gone. 

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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