In the Garden:
Middle South
July, 2012
Regional Report

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A balance of harmony and contrast in foliage size, shape, texture, and color, creates eye-catching combos.

Favoring Foliage, Part II

In the past two years, I've moved to a shady landscape, downsized my garden space, and decided to limit high-maintenance plants. Each of these changes means fewer flowers in summer, especially from sun-loving herbaceous perennials. As a consequence, I'm now placing a much higher value and emphasis on foliage.

To keep the garden interesting from June through September, I'm making a concerted effort to replace eye-catching blooms with striking foliage combinations. The key, I've discovered, is using foliage that's far from ordinary.

Like flowers, foliage is distinguished by size, shape, texture, and color. What grabs attention are extremes -- leaves that are very large, an unusual shape, intensely colored or variegated, or hairy, puckered, or lacy.

The best-looking foliage combinations are created with a balance of harmony and contrast. Plants should relate to each other by sharing a characteristic or two, but not be overly similar. For example, the reddish-copper glow of fresh fronds on autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) echo the ruby veining of hardy begonia (B. grandis) but have vastly different leaf shapes.

In my planting beds, hostas and ferns are the backbone of numerous foliage combinations. Both are "extreme" in their own way; hostas typically have big leaves with interesting veining or puckering, while ferns are lacy with spear-shaped fronds that thrust upward or bend gracefully into fountains. Both also come in a range of colors and variegated forms.

Here are a few well-chosen options:

Hosta 'Frances Williams' is one of the most widely grown varieties. It is a large plant, 24 inches tall with a 48 to 60 inch spread. Round leaves feature wide yellow margins around blue-green centers.

Hosta 'Halcyon' earned the 1997 Award of Merit from the British Royal Horticultural Society for its attractive frosty-blue color and spear-shaped foliage. The plant grows into a mounding shape, reaching to 24 inches tall and spreading up to 36 inches wide.

Hosta 'Sum and Substance' was the 2004 American Hosta Growers Association (AHGA) Hosta of the Year. Leaves are a striking charteuse-gold with heavy puckering. This big plant, 36 inches tall with a 60 inch spread, needs some sun for best color.

Hosta 'Captain Kirk' is an improved sport of the popular 'Gold Standard'. It has high contrast leaves featuring dark green margins around a gold center. Growing to 20 inches tall and 36 inches wide, it, too, needs some sun for best color.

Hosta 'Stained Glass' was the 2006 AHGA Hosta of the Year and is still considered one of the best. It has shiny, deeply veined, golden foliage with a slim green margin and grows 16 inches tall and 20 inches wide.

Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) tolerates poor and dry conditions much better than many other ferns. Newly emerging fronds are an attractive cooper or pink color. Standing 18 inches tall and wide, it can take some sun if soil is moist.

Ghost fern (Athyrium) is a cross of lady fern and Japanese painted fern with outstanding hybrid vigor, as well as beautiful silver foliage that is nearly white on fresh fronds and then fades to a soft gray-green color. The fern has an upright stance and grows to 2 to 3 feet tall and wide.

Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) is a coarse-textured plant that grows to 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. Sturdy, evergreen fronds are a dark glossy green and hold up well to wind and other harsh weather conditions.

Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) is very intolerant of drought, direct sunlight, and frost. But the plant more than makes up for its tenderness with its deeply divided, light-green sterile fronds that reach up to 3 feet in length. The fern also produces smaller fertile fronds that emerge in late summer.

Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) is a large plant that normally grows 2 to 3 feet tall, but in favorable conditions can be much larger. Like the sensitive fern, it also has smaller fertile fronds that add interest. Deer and small mammals graze on its fiddleheads, and hummingbirds will collect the fuzz of new fronds to line their nests.

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