Of course a garden is more than flowers. There’s weeds and bugs too! The nice thing about gardening in this region – the mid-atlantic – is that we can create a garden that has flowers blooming nearly 12 months of the year. Sure those late fall and winter flowers may not be the showstopper the Hibiscus pictured above is, but they are flowers nonetheless. Summer is the time when flowers abound, annuals like impatiens, begonias and marigolds brighten up gardens throughout the warmer months, only succumbing when the first frost hits, turning them into mushy piles of petals. For those of us more inclined towards the perennial persuasion of plants, having blooms throughout the growing season means developing a diversity in the garden that ensures multiple seasons of blooms. It is not as simple as planting rows of impatiens we know will keep blooming through the summer. We have to plan a sequence of flowering to ensure something’s in bloom whenever we gaze into the garden. I love this challenge. When I worked in an urban educational garden, I challenged myself to create a garden with 4 seasons of blooms. Not just four seasons of interest, which we had, but I wanted visitors to see flowers in the city whenever they visited. Through careful selection and combination of trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs flowers could be found 12 months of the year, much to my delight and to the delight of the visitors.
But there’s so much more to a garden than flowers. I always tell my students while flowers may be present for just a short time, foliage is there a lot longer and you should always consider the foliage when you are planning to add a plant to the garden. When considering interest in the garden and bloom times, don’t forget about the foliage!
This was cemented in my brain after a trip to Costa Rica. I had never been there before and it was pre-google (& pre-digital camera – 23 rolls of film later!). I was expecting orchids dripping off the trees, practically slapping me in the face everywhere I went. I expected carpets of tropical flowers lining every road and trail. What I didn’t expect was green. Lots of green, everywhere green and not many flowers to speak of (well, at least compared to what my vivid imagination conjured). During a canopy tour, I peered over the swinging bridge railing into the top of the rain forest and noticed how different all the green was. There were countless shades of green and the textures ranged from the coarse Monstera speciosa or Swiss Cheese Plant to the lacy Tree Fern. It was fantastically beautiful. From then on I had an appreciation for how beautiful and interesting foliage can be.
My recent visit to the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College really solidified for me what one can do in a garden by simply taking a considered look at foliage.
Just like flowers, foliage can add texture and color to a landscape. During this visit I focused on the Terry Shane Teaching Garden and the Scott Arboretum Entrance Garden mostly because I didn’t get much farther, taking in all the combinations, colors and textures this small part of the Arboretum had to offer took up much of my time!
In the photo above you see lots of green. The various shades of greens along with the variety of textures from the giant leaved yellow-green hosta to the lacy ferns to the yellow grass and the tropical bananas in the background create a combination in which you don’t miss flowers at all. And unlike flowers, which will fade, this combination will last from early spring well into the fall and winter.
The bluestone of the walkway provides a nice resting point for your eyes after taking in the foliage and textures of the plant combination. Here you see hostas, which are fairly ubiquitous (and a favorite of deer) and come in a stunning array of colors and sizes. Sure they flower, but no one really looks at the flowers. In fact, I know many hosta aficionados that remove the flowers. The gold-leaved and blue-leaved hostas are paired with Japanese Painted Fern and Bugbane (Actaea racemes) and the darker green leaves of Raulston’s Allspice (Sinocalycanthus raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine’) in the background.
Many of us think of blue and pink pompoms of flowers when we hear the word Hydrangea. I encourage you to think foliage too! Above you see combinations of a golden-leaved variety of Oakleaf Hydrangea paired with the dark green leaves of Smooth Hydrangea and the feathery leaves of Western Red-Cedar (Thuja plicate). All of these present coarse textures but work so well together because of their differences. Note how well the golden leaves of the Oakleaf Hydrangea ‘Little Honey’ brighten up this shady garden. No flowers needed!
Grasses are also used to great effect in the demonstration gardens. Here you see feathery leaves of Blue Star (Amsonia hubrictii) couple with the blue leaves of little bluestem. The same grass in a little more sun is coupled with the bold flowers and foliage of Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum).
Sure, there are a few Hydrangea flowers at the end of this walkway, but its the combination of foliage texture and color that just call you to walk and explore. When considering your plant combinations consider all the features of the plant – flowers, fragrance, foliage, bark, fruits. Think about them in combination and how they will change through the seasons. Also think about giving a place for a viewer’s eye to rest.
The goal is not to overwhelm with color and texture and fragrance but to inspire exploration and interest, a wanting to see more and take a closer look. In order to achieve this, like in everything else in life, there must be a balance. Balancing the combinations, structures, textures, forms, negative spaces, colors and flowers is the challenge for all of us gardeners. It takes trial and error and research, listening to the anecdotes of fellow gardeners and exploring the tremendous resources our public gardens have to offer. The fun is in taking all of the information in and creating something that represents who we are, what we are passionate about and creating a space that makes us happy.
If you visit the Scott Arboretum, be sure to check out the John W. Nason Garden designed with textures and foliage as the focus. While you’re there, have lunch in the Amphitheater, it is a truly magical place.
I know this is a post about considering features other than flowers, but I couldn’t help myself!
About those 12 months of flowers
Try adding these plants to your landscape if you are interested in blooms through winter.
Witchhazels – especially ‘Jalena’ – a cross between Japanese Witchhazel and Chinese Witchhazel sporting vibrant orange, red flowers in January! Unlike many witchhazels, you will be able to see these blooms across the yard.
Of course, if you have the right habitat – Skunk Cabbage is a fascinating winter blooming plant to include!
Hellebore – Often making the list of winter-blooming plants, hellebore have long lasting flowers when not much else is flowering. They are named Christmas Rose, Lenten Rose which tell you a little about their bloom time.
Skimmia – a tough, deer resistant shrub that loves (requires) shady spots. Be sure to plant a male and a female if you want the gorgeous berries.
You may also want to try Sweetbox, Winter Jasmine, Daphne, Mahonias, Winter Heath, Snowdrops, and Winter Camellias just to name a few. Ask around and do your research regarding hardiness, bloom times and availability. For inspiration, Scott Arboretum has a wonderful Winter Garden, where you can witness the stunning combination of winter blooming plants and trees and shrubs with interesting bark. Check out these other public gardens with Winter Gardens for inspiration: University of Washington Botanic Gardens, JC Raulston Arboretum, Hoyt Arboretum, Willowwood Arboretum, Hillier Gardens (UK), Norfolk Botanical Garden, UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, Cambridge University Botanical Garden (UK), and Tower Hill Botanic Garden.