May 26, 2010

Color Without Flowers

One of the things I have learned recently is that foliage color can serve the same role as bloom color in spring.  Many of my shrubs and trees turn nice colors in fall, but spring foliage color is a new discovery for me.

I planted Knockout roses, and they are trouble free and they bloom all summer, as advertised.  But the bloom color is quite cherry-red and bright, and I really don't like them. 

But here's what I really do like --- the emerging foliage in early spring, so rich and vivid.  Long before there are any summer flowers, I have scarlet color in this part of the garden.

One of the sights that most pleases me is viewing a small clump of wine red heuchera edging the garden by the birch trees.  Their flower spikes in late spring are kind of insignificant and brief, but from early spring till fall the low red spot of foliage just glows in the afternoons, and attracts my eye the whole season.

I added a pop of upright color to this same garden by planting a Japanese maple 'Orange Dream' behind the leggy aronia shrubs.  It gives some substance to the garden that was missing, but mostly it just lights it up.

Here you can see both the bright Japanese maple and the red heuchera in the garden in May, from a distance.  There are almost no blooms, nothing in flower this early in this garden, but there's still color:

And another view, with dark clumps of Penstemon 'Huskers Red' foliage contrasting with the shining Japanese maple:

The red new foliage of a weeping Japanese maple 'Crimson Queen' is intense.  The deep green color of the groundcover Kinnikinnik is a good complement.  No blooms, no flowers (well, the kinnikinnik is wearing its tiny blueberry-like bells), just colorful foliage.

A small newly planted spirea 'Ogon' makes a bright little point at the back in the early garden in May, before anything else brightens up.  It will get much larger and fuller with age, and it keeps its colorful foliage till December:

I'm just learning how to do this, so I'm still pretty tentative about adding bright leaves and forms.  But I am finding that using foliage to color up the garden is very rewarding.

Some flowers will bloom for a long time: the Knockout roses go on forever, and Rudbeckia and coneflowers are in bloom most of the summer.  But foliage opens up whole new ways to add color, especially in early spring after the bright colored bulbs go by. Trees can add colorful substance and height, shrubs anchor the middle layers with bright round forms, and perennials bring saturated color down to the ground.

I need to try adding more!


  1. My garden is a lot of foliage colors instead of blooms. I love blooms but they are so ephemeral. This summer I may add a few annuals for that dash of bloom color. As you say,one can be adding color all the time. At least I seem to be adding when I think the garden is full. A gardeners curse. Ha..

  2. You have a beautiful arrangement of colorful foliage in your garden. Knockouts do have amazingly red new foliage don't they? I have 2 (succumbed to the $5 sales price, twice) and went through a period where I didn't like them.

  3. Lisa, I like the idea of foliage like you've used it... I now need to experiment with textures too.

    Gina, thanks so much!

    Sweet bay, after seeing the Carolina roses and others in your gardens, I am even more bleeah about my Knockouts... but they'll stay.

  4. If you haven't been there already, you might be interested in popping over to Dirt Therapy's Wordless Wednesday post. He has the most gorgeous variegated Kousa Dogwood, called "Wolf Eyes".

  5. I am craving lime coloured foliage this year, hmmm....maybe because my garden is shadier than I realized.

    Your combos are looking good!

  6. Sweet bay, wow, the picture on Phillip Oliver's site is amazing. I had heard of Wolf Eyes before, but that shot of the foliage is beautiful. thanks!

    Garden Ms. S, even a small pop of light colored foliage brightens things. I hope you find something nice that does that in your shady garden .... and then post a picture of it!


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