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February 17, 2006
Posted online April 12, 2006

Add color to your garden without flowers

By Bob Sampson,

LobeliaSome basic foliage colors can replace flowers and add another dimension to your garden, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"When shopping for plants to put into your garden that might provide some color, have you really looked past the flower potential and to the plant itself?" asked Greg Stack. "A plant should not stop adding color just because it has stopped blooming or does not have flowers.

"Go deeper into the plant this spring when visiting garden centers. Look at its leaves and ask yourself what they can do for your garden."

Garden plants have one constant--leaves. They are present even when the plant may not be in flower nor has no flowers that are significant to the garden.

"For something that is so ever present, one would think that more attention would be paid to foliage and what it can do to color up a garden," said Stack.

Take the color green, he added.

"Yes, green is a color, and in the garden it is very predominant. But all leaves are not the same shade of green," Stack explained. "Green is a combination of blue and yellow and will present large variations. Blue-green suggests a cool feeling and yellow-green more of a warmer feel.

"Gray and green harmonize well. When looking at a plant to fill the green color category, there is no shortage of candidates. One needs to look closely at the leaves and study them."

Not only will shades of green be obvious, but there is also the textural element that can offer highlights.

"Just look at the many cultivars of hosta and all of green and blue-green leaves," he said. "When looking at 'green'-leaved plants, you may have to really step back and study the plant to see the subtle differences in green. After looking at them, you will find that there really are differences that you may not have realized at first."

The differences sometimes lie in textural patterns. Each is different. Blue-green foliage can increase the apparent size of a small space garden by giving it more perceived depth. It can also create shadows in the garden.

"When looking for blue-leaved plants, you can start with some of the grasses," Stack said. "Fescue 'Elijah Blue' and Switchgrass 'Heavymetal' are some good choices. Perennials such as Fringed Leaf Bleeding heart 'Luxuriant,' Rudbeckia maxima, and Thalictrum 'Thundercloud' add a touch of blue. Blue spruce 'Thomsen' can offer year-round interest."

Red is bold and energizing. Large masses of red create excitement and interest. Red is often used to shock or surprise.

"Purple and red foliage plants look their best when they can be back-lit by either the rising or setting sun," said Stack. "This makes the colors seem almost molten. Red can become lost in heavy shade."

There are many red- or bronze-leaved foliage plants to choose from. Perennials such as Cimicifuga "Brunette" or Lobelia "Queen Victoria," and Ligularia "Dark Beauty" are bold choices. Of the many annuals, there are Solenostemon (coleus), Alternanthera "Purple Knight," Iresine "Purple Lady," and Ornamental Pepper "Black Pearl."

Yellow is a warm color. It tends to be a very dominant color in the garden and can draw your eye. It works well and mixes well with many colors.

"Yellow can add that spot of sunshine to darker corners of the garden," said Stack. "Look for yellow in perennials such as Amsonia, many hostas, Geranium 'Annfolkard,' Lysimachia 'Auria,' and Dicentra 'Gold Heart.'

"Annuals such as Sweet Potato 'Margarita' and Helichrysum 'Limelight' and tropics such as Xanthosoma 'Chartreuse' make very bold statements."

Gray/silver is a neutral color. It helps intensify already bold colors and softens the delicate pastels. Gray foliage plants often have fine, soft hairs that give them their distinctive color and soft texture.

"Gray-leafed plants require a bit more care in the garden, especially in regards to drainage," said Stack. "Well-drained soils are a requirement if you want to succeed with these plants.

"Shade gardens are brightened by gray-leafed plants that act as a spotlight in dark areas. Some gray or silver plants to consider include Artemisia 'Powis Castle,' Achillea 'Anblo,' and Stachys 'Countess Helen von Stein.' The many cultivars of dusty miller and Plectranthus offer great silver foliage in annuals."

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