Colorful foliage thrives in Southern gardens
High performance and low maintenance are the two most desirable traits in gardening. We want our landscape to do something throughout the growing season, especially through the hot, steamy Southern summer, and we don’t want to spend time coaxing bloom.
So how do you plant a garden full of color that stays bright and beautiful for the entire season? For that, your landscape would be composed of plants and shrubs with highly ornamental foliage, bred for specific leaf color, shape, texture and size. Flowers are usually an incidental, minor feature of the scenery.
Rosewood Garden Designs in Charlotte, N.C., considers colorful foliage an important part of its work. “It’s frequently something we look for because you can get such great contrasts that you can’t get with just a palette of greens,” says Jeni Munn, owner and founder of this highly-rated firm.
In terms of colorful shrubs, Munn likes the new color varieties of Loropetalum, an irregularly rounded shrub that ranges in size from 1 to 6 feet, depending on the cultivar. “They hold their color and mix well with plants of varying heights,” she says. Munn also uses variegated Abelia cultivars such as “Kaleidescope” and “Mardi Gras.”
For contrast, Munn includes dramatic colors in her designs. “I’m fond of plants with chartreuse leaves — the color pops, especially in the shade,” she says. “Varieties of bleeding heart and Heuchera are really terrific. Wine-colored plants, such as Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow,’ are good contrasts.”
The popularity of growing and collecting hosta, especially throughout the Southeast, may have stirred interest in foliage-landscape displays. With more than 2,000 named hosta cultivars, plant breeders have produced leaf colors in cream, white, yellow, chartreuse, blue and every shade of green with variegated patterns containing these colors.
James Hill knows his clients want low-maintenance landscapes. As owner of highly rated Peace of Green Landscaping in Houston, he steers clear of traditional flowering shrubs, such as azaleas and gardenias, for that reason. The projects he designs in and around communities in the northwestern Houston metro area feature a blend of colorful shrubs, variegated evergreens and ornamental grasses.
Hill says the effects of recent weather extremes have been very instructive when it comes to selecting plants. “I look at which ones have come through the drought and the freezes in good shape,” he says. “Those are the plants I want to use because I know they can take tough conditions and still look good.”
Christopher Fox, landscape designer and owner of highly rated Blue Dragonfly Designs in Cypress, Texas, is familiar with the challenges of local growing conditions. “The Gulf Coast is tough on plants and plants from the Gulf Coast are tough,” he says, underscoring the importance of working with native species. Fox says his clients look for a well-designed garden that fills the senses. “Their tastes and goals guide the plant selections, balancing perennials, herbs, evergreens and deciduous plants,” he says. Some of his favorites include salvia, butterfly weed, Southern magnolia, rosemary, parsley, Alpinia ginger, fox tail fern and zebra grass.