Sunday, October 30, 2011

Monochromatic Foliage Combinations - simple, elegant

Stunning. Soft, cool tones in silvery blues transition with ease
into gentle blue-purple. Design by Peggy and Al Shelley
Photo credit; One Thousand Words Photography

It’s so easy to overcomplicate things.

You know how it is - you decide to select a few plants for the garden or favorite container and head off to the nursery filled with anticipation. Once there you find yourself seduced by the flirty flowers of the moment; tall spires of delphiniums bluer than the summer skies, coneflowers dressed in every color of the rainbow and who can possibly resist those precious winter blooms of camellias?

With the car loaded up and the ‘double tall, soy, no foam latte with a smidge of hazelnut’ in hand (this is Seattle after all) you head home to plant your new treasures, expecting an instant transformation from mundane to magnificent. Yet so often regardless of how much money you have spent the results don’t meet your expectations. Somehow it looks’ fussy’ with no clear focus.

The homeowner has struggled to make the most of this area, adding a
trellis, birdbath and coral bark maple as well as many flowering
perennials. However, without the backbone of foliage interest
 these just aren't enough to realize the potential

Typically the problem is that regardless of how pretty the flowers are, all the leaves are mid green, mid-size and mid height, i.e. BORING! Sometimes it can help to look at a black and white photograph to recognize this such as the one above. What do you see? Basically nothing - only the bright fall leaves of the coral bark maple stand out yet there are lots of different plants.

Let me show you an easy way to get fabulous results every time. The key to the art of simplicity is to

1.    Focus on foliage
   2.    Keep to one color

Focus on foliage

Forget the flowers! I’m not against flowers – far from it. But if your design is based around them, unless you are an experienced designer with an in depth knowledge of plants, you will have nasty gaps during the season where nothing is happening resulting in significant visual ‘holes’.

Simple shades of green, fabulous texture interest and the shiny leaves
of the hart's tongue fern make this a memorable group.
Design by Alyson Ross Markley

Instead of flowers, turn your attention to the myriad of colorful, luscious leaves from brooding black to sparkling silver. Cool blues, rich purples, buttery yellow and softest pinks come in stripes, spots and spirals offering the endless possibilities of a kaleidoscope. There’s a world of color out there beyond mid-green.

Now look at the shape of the leaves – what we refer to as texture. Are they big and bold or fine and wispy? Feathery or spiky? Touch them – do they feel like velvet or sandpaper? What about their light reflective properties? Are they shiny or dull?

As soon as I began to recognize these attributes I felt as though the world of plants and design really opened up to me. Suddenly my plant selection quadrupled!

Keep to one color

A monochromatic combination is the little black dress of the garden. Simple, understated and elegant. And it always looks good.

'All gold' Japanese forest grass picks up on the yellow variegation
of this new daphne (Daphne odora 'Mae-Jima').
Bellevue botanical gardens
Choose your 'inspiration' plant – something you are immediately drawn to such as the variegated daphne above. It may only bloom for a while but look at those green and yellow variegated leaves! Now find another plant with a different leaf shape but the same colors. In this combination 'All gold' Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ) was used. It has the same colors as the daphne but the foliage texture provides interesting contrast. They make a simple but striking pair for a semi-shaded spot.

Warm colors are the highlight of this combination, using
Rhododendron 'Teddy bear' as my inspiration.
My design

Who can resist a teddy bear? Rhododendron ‘Teddy Bear’ is a delightfully compact cultivar which benefits from container culture or a raised bed to appreciate the deep rust, fuzzy covering (called indumentum) on the stems, the undersides of the leaves and the new growth. Adding companions such as orange hair sedge (Carex testacea) with its wispy blades of olive green tipped in orange, and ‘Caramel’ coral bells (Heuchera) whose soft leaves range in shades of peach and apricot with the reverse side and stems in raspberry emphasizes this feature while keeping the restrained color palette. Delicious.

Here’s your challenge for the week. Head to the nursery and find two fabulous foliage plants which are in the same color family but have different textures. (I’m assuming you are also reading the tags to be sure they need the same light and water conditions!). Do they look good together? Then find just one more to create a trio. Let the artist in you come out. If these are for a container try to tie the color of the pot into the design also to get a unified look. In the garden, consider what size or how many of each plant you need to create impact.

Learning to work with plants in this way becomes an exciting adventure – a treasure hunt for new ideas and new combinations. I’ll never have a garden without flowers but they are the bonus in my designs. I might add a bright orange daylily in front of a purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria) for a splash of contrast, but it is the continuing dusky hues of the smoke bush foliage that will hold that part of the garden together long after the daylilies have faded.


Purple fountain grass makes an easy partner to 'Rose glow' barberry.
Silver Artemisia repeats the paler shades at the ground plane
providing a fresh, fluffy texture. Design by Carol Johannson.
Photo credit; One Thousand Words Photography


This isn't about creating an entirely monochromatic garden, although such a calm design can be truly beautiful. Rather it is a technique to help you learn to look at plants in a new way and to gain confidence putting together a few simple vignettes. With experience you will easily learn to work successfully with color echoes as well as adding contrast effectively. 


Those of us who are gardeners with a little more dirt under our fingernails still benefit from being challenged from time to time and reminded that there are some great plants out there that we haven't had an excuse to work with yet. Consider yourself given permission to go shopping for 'research'!

What is your favorite foliage combination? 

16 comments:

  1. Karen, what a delightful article! I read it from A to Z! So many good tips and some things that I already knew but don't follow!
    The only thing I hesitate to do is to buy new plants now. I haven't been lucky with fall plantings. It's not a cold to blame, but mostly wetness in my garden. Anyway, thank you so much fot the post! Great pictures and ideas!
    Thank you for commenting on my blog!

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  2. Thank you Tatyana, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post.
    You're right - excessive rain is main problem in Seattle over extreme cold. Thankfully I have learned which plants do well and which drown. In containers I also do a custom potting mix which I trust and use for all my clients. Happy to share ideas if it would help!

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  3. Thanks personalgardencoach - wish I could take credit for them all! Only the Rhodie one is mine but I am inspired by the others.

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  4. You have expressed my own garden philosophy perfectly. I will never forget the first 'garden' I ever planted. I paid thirty-something dollars for a group of flowers, some of them bulbs, which were supposed to form a spring garden. The catalog photo was gorgeous! Ha! First, the handful of flowers had no impact, and second, they didn't even bloom all at the same time as shown in the photo. Third, most of them died the first summer. I quickly learned about the power of foliage and the need for structure provided by shrubs and trees.

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  5. Most of us learn this the hard way! Like you my first garden (30 years ago) was wonderful - for a month. By late July it was bare and I couldn't understand why.

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  6. Absolutely beautiful foliage Karen, love the Hakonechloa and most especially the Daphniphyllum 'Mae-Jima' which can be tricky to grow :)

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  7. garden is very much about colours, shapes and fragrance.... you put it so well.

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  8. Mark and Gaz - do you have experience growing this Daphniphyllum (thank you for the correct/full name)? Experience is so much more helpful that plant tags!

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  9. Bangchik and Kakdah - I'm so glad you enjoyed this post; thank you. I try to take the 'fear' out of garden design by explaining such principles with easily understood text and beautiful photographs. Replace intimidation with inspiration.
    I appreciate your encouragement.

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  10. Excellent post ... thank you. (Ah, yes ... I well know 'visual holes'!)

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  11. Thank you Joey! Hindsight is a wonderful thing.....

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  12. What a handy trick that is, to use a black & white photo to show you what's "really" going on without distractions. I'm going to have to try that! I love what you say about building around an "inspiration" plant.

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  13. Stacy - this is a great way to explain to homeowners what I 'see' when assessing their garden. Thinking about it, I should start using this in PowerPoint too!

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  14. Great post, very useful. I really only started to appreciate foliage this year, and now I'm becoming addicted. Last month in my (Spring) garden I loved the combination of velvety grey Stachys byzantina (Lambs Ears)with bright silvery Helichrysum italicum (Curry plant). I cut the yellow flower buds off the Curry Plant. At the moment, I'm enjoying three plants in a pot - Sedum "Gold Mound", Oregano "Country Cream" and Golden Marjoram. Gold, cream and lime green, with bright yellow when the sedum starts flowering.

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  15. Lyn, they sound like gorgeous combinations. The big lambs ears with the tiny curry plant foliage would be fabulous. All super drought tolerant too.

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