Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The REALLY Big & Bold

Prehistoric looking Gunnera is perfectly placed by a pond.
Bloedel Reserve, WA

I find myself drawn to big leaves. (Maybe it’s because my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be and these are hard to miss!)

With our new garden being so much larger than I am used to (5 acres), many of the plantings are viewed from a distance. I therefore have to make sure that any plants, combinations or vignettes I add are large enough either in scale or mass to be seen and appreciated from 100’ away or more. Whereas in our previous gardens a simple combination of 1 fern, 1 Heuchera and 1 grass could make an attractive group, these would just disappear into a general ‘mush’ now. However, even increasing the quantities of each won’t make a statement necessarily if none of the leaves individually have a presence. That is where larger foliage plays a part.

'Francee' hosta is an old favorite - which makes it affordable!
Looking for a ‘space’ I quickly dug a green and white variegated hosta into the middle of a long border shortly after we moved. I just need somewhere for it to go until I could find a more permanent home. There was a rather sad looking variegated andromeda (Pieris japonica)  behind and a clump of white daisies to one side so I thought it might make a nice group in the summer. Well I was partially right! The daisies grew ridiculously tall after two doses of compost and completely engulfed the hosta so the flowers have now been relocated. The hosta really works, however. Even from a distance these larger leaves stand out from the crowd, thanks in part to the white banding. This variety ‘Francee’ is a mid sized hosta , quickly making a 2 ½’ wide clump and takes sun surprisingly well in moist soil, so it can stay there for now at least. There are many more varieties of hosta with far larger leaves and brighter colors which I look forward to adding to my new shade borders this fall.
A nicely proportioned vignette featuring a Rodgersia and
Japanese forest grass.

As this existing border disappeared under two old Douglas fir trees the design (and plants) seemed to fade away. It was as though the previous homeowner had given up at that point, and I can hardly blame her as gardening under such huge trees is not easy. Once again larger leaved perennials have come to my rescue as well as a few other design tricks. The first thing I needed to do was provide something to catch the eye – in this case a pale terracotta urn did the job and will be visible year round. There were already assorted broadleaved evergreens nearby including Rhododendrons and a David viburnum (V. davidii), so I needed to add some light into the mix. A skirt of ‘All gold’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All gold’) worked beautifully adding shimmer, movement and finely textured leaves. The finishing touch came from the palm shaped, crinkly leaves of Rodgersia which fan out over the top of the grass.  I’ll need to move the Rodgersia back and either put the container on a pedestal or replace it with a larger one, but I like the effect.

Heartleaf oxeye makes you take a second look
with leaves bigger than dinner plates!

We are extending the depth of this border by 10-15’ and adding a walking trail through it to invite exploration and discovery. Seeing the garden from a distance is important but I also want to be able to enjoy a few surprises up close. For this reason I planted a group of 3 heartleaf oxeye (Telekia speciosa) behind the pot/Rodgersia planting mentioned above. When viewed from the front one can just see tall yellow daisies peeking in the background. As you embark on the pathway however the sheer size of the leaves is evident. Each heart shaped leaf must be at least 20” long and 10” across. From this large basal rosette there rises 5’ stems bearing golden daisies in July and August. The slugs did some damage early on but the plants quickly outgrew them.  This size of the foliage together with its soft almost felted touch provides interest, especially as this is not a commonly planted shade perennial.
The large glossy leaves of Darmera appear
like protective green umbrellas over 
primroses and other waterside plants.
Barbara Lycett design, Seattle WA

Waterside plantings offer an opportunity to take advantage of the reflective quality of the setting. Dinosaur food (Gunnera sp.), butterbur (Petasites sp.), umbrella plant (Darmera sp.) and shield leaf Roger's flower (Astilboides tabularis) are all effective in this environment and calla lilies (Zantedeschia sp.) can be planted actually into shallow water itself, throwing up pristine white flowers in summer. All these plants need constant moisture and so shady, damp settings are a natural fit and their huge leaves balance larger water features beautifully.

What about sunny areas? The tropical Canna and elephant ears (Colocasia) make wonderful annuals for many of us, but for more permanent plants consider evergreens such as New Zealand flax (Phormium sp.), especially the larger varieties such as the bronze ‘Guardsman’ which can reach 7’ and ‘Apricot queen’ whose apricot and green blades grow to 6’. Similarly shaped but shorter are the Yuccas, with ‘Color Guard’ providing a bold splash  with its yellow variegated leaves. Silver sage (Salvia argentea) needs full sun and exceptionally well drained soil but its large silvery leaves beg to be touched as they are as soft as fur. For a small tree or large shrub consider the golden Indian bean tree (Catalpa bignoides ‘Aurea’) with its large heart shaped leaves in bright lime green. I like this best when coppiced each spring to form a 6’ tall, bushy shrub. It really adds sparkle to the border and makes a good foil for darker foliage.

Looking like a silvery cabbage, this silver sage
begs to be stroked rather than eaten.
Photo credit; Annie's annuals

There are of course many more possibilities and a trip to your local nursery will help you with your treasure hunt. I find these steroidal giants helpful in designing larger gardens but equally valuable as a heart and feet-stopping focal point in smaller ones. Using larger sizes can seem counter-intuitive in small gardens yet this is an opportunity to create drama and impact. For larger gardens these ultra-bold textures help to add strength to a distant design, and if not provide a key focal point at least act as an anchor to support groups of light reflecting grasses or a mass planting of ferns at its feet, which might not be otherwise appreciated.

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