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Ten Favorite Plants For Foliage

I was thinking about foliage the other day, about how my garden depends on it throughout the year for structure and beauty. I have always considered flowers secondary. My particular zone 7b garden is blessed (or cursed, depending on one's attitude) with lots of shade, acidic soil, and long hot summers. Flowers are usually fleeting and demand higher maintenance. I learned early that I can get more sustained color by emphasizing foliage. 

So I decided to make a list of my top ten plants for foliage. This was not easy! There are multitudes of foliage plants with wonderful textures and colors. How to choose? I finally set up the following criteria:

I must love it. The plant must have been growing successfully in my garden for at least three years. This means it has lived through drought, as well as weeks of torrential downpours, steamy summers, and unpredictable winters. It has not succumbed to bugs or blight or strange fungal diseases that appear overnight. It has taken care of itself through weeks or months of neglect. I eliminated all annuals — maybe not really fair, but this helped me to shorten my list of potential choices.

So, here are my personal top ten foliage plants, in no particular order; I have provided links for those on which I have written more detailed plant profiles:

1. Deodar cedar, 'Feelin' Blue':I have often featured this small weeping evergreen tree in my blog posts. I can't say enough good things about it. It has incredible color, and I love its form and feathery texture. It grows on the sunny edge of my woodland garden.

2. Japanese maple, all of them. I couldn't choose which of my thirteen I love best. Their foliage, with many shades of green, gold, red and orange, is beautiful from spring through fall, some with lacy textures, some with weeping forms, all gorgeous.

3. Juniper 'Saybrook Gold'. This is another evergreen planted along the sunny edge of the woodland garden. It has marvelous evergreen foliage. In spring it is pure gold, turning more limey green in summer. The long branches are held horizontally, and it also has a feathery texture I love. Last fall I cleared away the cotoneaster on the woodland bank. They were perishing from disease and stress, so I replaced them with additional 'Saybrook Gold' plants. Right now they look funny alongside their mature hillside mates, but already they are putting out lots of new growth. Grow, grow! And catch up with the others, I say.'Saybrook Gold' is growing behind Japanese maple 'Waterfall'. Both have fabulous gold springtime foliage.

4. Hostas. The three that have prospered in my garden are 'Elegans', 'Sum and Substance, and 'Francis Williams'. Seedlings have sprouted which are, I believe, hybrids of 'Elegans' and 'Francis Williams'. They all like moist, rich soil and shade. As time passes I am adding more hosta cultivars to my garden. Time will tell which ones will do as well as these three.

5. Autumn fern. I haven't had success with many ferns, but this evergreen one has thrived. New fronds have a beautiful coppery color.

6. Variegated Hydrangea. I keep this deciduous shrub mulched with pine straw, and I do water it during dry spells, but otherwise it is easy-care. It has lovely summer flowers, but its remarkable green and white leaves brighten the shady entrance to the woodland garden from spring through fall.

7. Rosemary. I grow a couple by the patio. Its evergreen, needle like foliage is terrific, and it's even better that I have a handy supply of this aromatic herb for recipes. It has grown into a nice shrub, and I like the way it combines with other plants in the area.

8. Heuchera. This native plant is increasing in popularity, and there are many great cultivars. I grow them in semi-shade in several garden areas. The airy summer blooms are a bonus.

9. Canna Lily 'Tropicana':I didn't want to like this gaudy plant, but it has pulled at me to embrace the tropical side. When the sun shines through its huge, multicolored leaves, I am reminded of stained glass. I can't stop taking photos of it. It goes dormant for winter but has proven hardy in my area. It carries its bright orange summer blossoms like a torch, but I would like it just as well without them. It is planted in a sunny area near the house, and I have a good view of it from my front windows.

10. Fothergilla major. This southeastern U.S. native is a great shrub in my woodland garden. It has delightfully fragrant bottlebrush blooms in the spring, but the leaves are what won my heart. They are a lovely blue-green in spring and summer and then turn multiple shades of purple and orange in the fall. Fothergilla gardeneii is a dwarf form.

These are plants that do well in my garden. It is always fun to see what does well for other folks. I enjoy being a member of Blotanical, a worldwide community of garden bloggers who share ideas and experiences in their gardens. Many have inspirational gardens and terrific knowlege to share. Some of these bloggers have become true, if virtual friends. Recently three different bloggers gave me the Versatile Blogger award. Now, I think all gardeners have to be versatile! Thanks so much to:

Bumble Lush, who gardens outside of Washington DC and specializes in growing vegetables in containers.

Casa Mariposa, who has an organic garden in Zone 7, also near Washington DC.

Lyn, The Amateur Weeder, who gardens a world away from me in New South Wales, Australia. 

If you are not familiar with their blogs, I encourage you to get to know them!

Last year I received The Stylish Gardener Award, a similar award which had the same requirements for acceptance, including posting seven random facts about myself and listing additional great blogs for readers to enjoy. These awards are fun and a great way to find out about other bloggers. So if you missed it last year and are curious, click onto A Stylish Award for Someone Who Wears Baggy Pants.

Thanks to all of you who follow my blog. Happy gardening!   Deborah

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Reader Comments (29)

Very nice post. I very much enjoyed the tour. Fothergilla is a favorite of mine also. I grow blue atlas cedar and weeping alaskan cedar for my evergreen fix. Foilage is important for structure in the garden. Happy gardening and con-crates on your award.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreggo

Very pretty choices! I love Japanese Maples too and wish I had room for another one. I've learned to really appreciate foliage, I used to only plant for flowers, but that has changed.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

that Canna Lily 'Tropicanna' is sensational.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSunny from Stone Art Blog

Wonderful selection of plants - many are old friends, but you remind me to try that fothergilla, esp since it's native.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCyndy

Deborah, I'm with you on preferring foliage to flowers for texture and color. Picking 10 is tough, but you did a beautiful job.

All best, Lee

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLee May

Gorgeous photos as always and a promise of dappled sunlight and warmer days ahead. I have added Fothergilla to my wish list for the woodland border this year but have to confess to having most of the others already - we have such similar tastes!!

I'm curious about your 'Feelin' blue' cedar. I've never seen it growing in a tree form like that, only as a prostrate ground cover or a very short standard. Did you train yours this way and if so how?

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Chapman

You've compiled a great list of favorites, and Japanese maples are the best of the best. I'd love to read a post on each of the thirteen varieties you grow. I only have three, but want to add more with different effects.

That cedar has gorgeous foliage and form!

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

Flowers are the icing on the cake, but the form of shrubs and trees is the cake, the loaf of bread. And how much more drama we get if we choose spectacular foliage. My garden would lose its sparkle without the silver fountains of Dusty Miller, the dark drama of the Prunus nigra, the succulents each telling a different leaf story.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElephant's Eye

Hi, everybody! I appreciate your kind comments very much. Karen, you asked about 'Feelin' Blue'. It is a dwarf tree and grows slowly. I've had mine for over a decade, and it was only a few inches tall when I bought it. For years it looked like a small shrub. Now it's about six feet tall and wider than that. It really isn't a ground cover, though I see Monrovia is advertising it as such. Mine has grown to its current form naturally. I did remove a few of its lower branches as they died off. Deborah

February 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterDeborah Elliott

Beautiful selection of textures and colors. Gardens that go beyond the bloom are fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterClaudia

What a truly wonderful selection of foliage, love your garden more each time I see more of it ! Like you, we have a lot of shade here and we use lots of the same plants. I feel that foliage is so important in the shade and its wonderful the contrasts that can be created by colour, shape and texture of the leaves, sometimes I think we don't need flowers!

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPauline Mulligan

The title alone is an immediate draw from me to read this blog post the moment I saw it. Superb selection! We too are mainly foliage gardeners and regard flowers as secondary. The importance and beauty of foliage in any garden is undeniable.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

What a gorgeous posting Debs - so sorry my visits have been v. sparse of late - last year I found that I had so little time for blogging with such a busy work schedule... so am trying to make the most of the v. cold weather we're having in France to catch up a bit... take care Miranda

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMiranda Bell

These plants have beautiful foliage - nice post as it's not always the foliage that gets the starring role, but it does make so much difference in a garden. I don't have good luck with ferns, either - I'll keep in mind Autumn Fern to try. And I love your variegated hydrangea. I need more variegated plants in my garden. Something else I need to keep in mind!

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHolleyGarden

Great choices, I love all of them, even though I cannot grow most of the ones you list :-/
I will keep your post in mind, and post my 10 favorites in the future.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGone Tropical

You are definitely versatile...I love your choices..so many of my favs in among them!!

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View

What a wonderful feature of the foliage in your garden. They are mostly overlooked or underappreciated by non-gardeners because they are not as colorful or as showy as blooms. Your post counters this misconception. I love your top ten. One easily understands how they are your favorites.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBom

Deb, it's really interesting to see your top ten, and to think about what mine would be. Eight of your plants wouldn't growwell for me, the exceptions being the Canna and the Rosemary. In the past, this might have made me long for the soil and climate needed to grow the other eight beautiful plants, but today I just thought how wonderful it is that our gardens are not all the same. And how marvellous that we can visit so many different and exciting gardens with just the click of a mouse. I'm glad your garden is completely unlike mine and that the view outside my window is nothing like the view on my screen.

February 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLyn

Deb I love the variety of textures as well as colours,
I'm interested in your reply to Karen about the Dwarf Cedar, I have teneded to think of 'dwarf' to mean quite small but as you have pointed out it's a dwarf tree so at 6 foot is a good size but still dwarf for a tree, I will have to think more about what the word 'dwarf' is in reference too when buying as until now I have avoided dwarf due to wanting larger growing plants to help fill my garden, thanks for this insight, Frances

February 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIsland Threads

So many gorgeous examples of foliage plants! You've shown so many here that I would love to try ~ the dwarf Deodar Cedar ( I didn't even know there was such a thing!), the Japanese Maples, the Fothergilla... well all of them really. lol Beautiful post!

February 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

I need to increase the amount of foliage plants in my garden. I am getting better at not focussing on the flowers as you say the foliage provides structure. I like your selection

February 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

Wise move to count on foliage more than flowers. I grew fothergilla when I lived in SC and I love it! I'm surprised rosemary does so well for you since GA is so humid. I love the structure interesting foliage adds to a garden. It was something I focused on when I redesigned my garden last fall. Thanks for the shout out! :)

February 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Maripoas

Your hostas are my favourite.

February 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterb-a-g

Deborah, it is interesting to see how many on our lists overlap... although I've never been able to find Fothergilla in South Africa (HIGH on my wishlist) and heuchera and hostas are not really freely available in variety here. PS: I've subscribed to your blog!

February 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Deb, I love all the plants that you featured! My zone is also 7b, but we don't have long hot summers... Your rosemary is so beautiful! Love plants which are nice looking and useful in the kitchen, too!

February 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

Ah Deborah, I started off gardening so very many years ago thinking it was all about flowers. It perhaps took me a little longer than yourself to realise the importance of foliage but find it I did. I love your selection, one which I have become very fond of is Alchemilla Mollis.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair

Great picks. Are you still zone 7B under the new USDA map? I am now 7A, and I can't believe we are only half a zone apart.

Hi Carolyn, I just checked out the new zones, and you are right! I have moved to 8a, but barely. I've always been borderline. Back in 1965 my area was zone 8; then in 1990 it became 7b, so now it's back to 8! When I buy plants I have always looked for plants that could take the heat of zone 8. In my experience zone 7 plants are iffy to survive through our summer. Deborah

February 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterDeborah Elliott

Deb, I love this post -- and all that gorgeous foliage. How exciting to have your own personal hosta hybrid seedlings growing in your garden. I consider both Elegans and Frances Williams especially beautiful varieties of hosta, but I haven't succeeded in getting either of them established in my garden. Fortunately, there are lots of other beautiful hostas that are happy to grow there.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJean
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