We share a commonality with bees and butterflies. We are all drawn to flowers. As gardeners we grow them, admire them, and arrange them, both outdoors and in the greenhouse. But, often, we tend to overlook what accompanies that panoply of colors—the foliage.
Now Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz have written an eye-opening new book, Gardening with Foliage First—127 dazzling combinations that pair the beauty of leaves with flowers, bark, berries, and more. Karen explains. “Flowers don’t always meet the need for beauty, color, and fragrance. If you focus on foliage first, you’ll never be disappointed.”
This book demonstrates how to flip our thinking around and consider the form and color of the leaves and stems, before we go for the flowers. “Gardening with Foliage First puts the emphasis on design as the starting point,” Christina says. “That makes perfect sense.”
It’s not that blossoms are ignored. But, for any long-lasting garden plan, the two agree, it’s really about foliage. Your efforts will pay off with more satisfying results. “Landscapes rich with flowers,” says Christina, “should have a framework of equally abundant and showy foliage.”
This month, I asked Karen and Christina to name their top favorites for color, form, and fragrance. You can grow these outdoors if they meet your zone requirements. Or overwinter them—indoors or in the greenhouse. They’re guaranteed to make your collection pop.
Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) – Karen says, “These have kaleidoscopic colors and a myriad of patterns to choose from. ‘Beckwith’s Gem,’ an heirloom variety with burgundy and pink foliage edged with gold, is particularly fine.”
Cabbage Tree (Cordyline fruticosa) – Christina likes their bold colors and leaf patterns in bright tropical hues.
Zanzibar croton (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Zanzibar’) – This one, Karen notes, “is a colorful ‘bad hair day’ of a plant!”
Begonia rex-cultorum – Christina appreciates these “kings” of begonias for their “huge range of colors, shapes and textures.”
Meerlo lavender (Lavandula allardii ‘Meerlo’) – Karen describes this Zone 9-10 lavender as having “Stunning variegated foliage.” Pat the rounded gold and green form—yes, it’s a plant you want to touch—and lavender scent fills the air.
Honey bush (Melianthus major) – “It has a surprising peanut butter scent when you brush the leaves,” Christina says. “Besides the unusual flowers, it shows off blue foliage with wonderful serrated edges.”