The Green Garden: Foliage as a Source of Interest and Pleasure
by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden
Spring in Central Texas is signaled by a cascade of colors: the pink of the Redbud trees, the clear violet-blue of the first Bluebonnets, and the pastel oranges of the Indian Paintbrushes. We celebrate the return of color to our gardens and make pilgrimages to our favorite wildflower spots to mark the change of seasons. I love these colorful harbingers of spring, but what really takes my breath away has nothing to do with petals or blooms. Every March I am stunned by the thousand shades of green. It is the new foliage, in all of its shapes and hues that is the real signal of the season.
Foliage always seems to play second fiddle to the flowers, the divas of the garden. Cast in a supporting role, or simply forgotten, few gardeners really pay attention to the foliage of their plants; however, it can be the source of great gardening pleasure. Some of the most pleasing garden rooms that I have experienced were solely composed of foliage plants. These tend to be very tranquil, calming spaces and offer a nice contrast to the more showy perennial borders.
There is another reason why we should pay more attention to the use of foliage in our gardens: shade. A majority of American gardeners are tending spaces underneath mature trees. In these shady locations, the varying hues and shapes of the leaves may be the best way to add interest to gardens.
Texture is the name of the game when it comes to successful green gardens. Balancing fine-textured plants, like grasses, with broad-leaf plants can create a sense of rhythm and movement in the garden that will never get boring. The plants listed below—all intended for shady locations—offer a number of interesting selections with varied textures.
Ferns are timeless foliage plants and they come in all different forms and textures. My two favorite varieties for the Austin area are the fine-textured native “River” or “Wood” Fern, Thelypteris kunthii, and the more broad leafed Holly Fern, Cyrtomium falcatum.
The River Fern has that classic woodlands feel that evokes cool forest floors; its delicate fronds support intricate, fine-textured foliage. This plant will freeze during the average Austin winter, and will need to be cut to the ground—but one of the great sights of spring is to see a mass planting of river ferns send up their “fiddleheads.” These new shoots seem the embodiment of the season as they unfurl in unison.
The Holly Fern has leathery evergreen foliage that is much coarser than the River Fern. This plant can become unattractive if left un-pruned year after year; however, if you trim it to the ground in the early spring, you will be rewarded with unobstructed views of the beautiful fiddleheads as they emerge. At first, the foliage is a pale green, but it darkens to a deep holly green.
Aspidistra, or “Cast Iron” plant, is an invaluable addition to shady settings. This well named plant is a legendary survivor that will grow in even the darkest situations. The plain form of the plant has broad, palm-like leaves that are dark green. When used in clumps at the back of a shady bed they offer a dense backdrop for more fine-textured plants. There are variegated forms available, some with broad creamy stripes running the length of the leaves. If you see these in a nursery, snap them up, since they can be hard to find.
Palm Grass, Setaria palmifolia is a relatively new introduction to Central Texas. I have incorporated about a dozen of these plants into my garden and believe that they will become a staple for those of us with shade. The foliage of this plant has a distinctively crinkled or pleated look that more closely resembles a palm than the Aspidistra. While Aspidistra has an upright growing habit, Palm Grass has a graceful weeping characteristic. The color is a nice, bright green which shows off well in darker areas and adds to the overall lightness of the texture. I would use this plant in a bed that receives some irrigation and is sheltered from drying winds.
It is hard to imagine a green garden without a few Boxwoods. For some folks these are the epitome of boredom, but you can’t beat them for their combination of fine texture and strong forms. Boxwoods grow in sun or shade and endure the extremes of the Central Texas climate without complaint. I highly recommend clipping these plants into bold, simple forms that will contrast with all of the loose, naturalistic plants that I have referenced up ’til now. “Wintergreen” is a reliable form of Boxwood that is a cross between the dark-leafed and upright Korean variety and the more rounded, lime-green Japanese form. The various named varieties of English Boxwood all make excellent choices for topiaries or borders, but they tend to be much slower growing and much more expensive.
There are a world of plants that please with their foliage—from the delicate tracery of the Japanese Maples to the broad tropical leaves of the Aralias. It is said that the Eskimos have a hundred words for snow; we should have at least that number for the thousand shades of green that surround us as this new season gently unfurls.
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