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It’s Not Just About Flowers: Design Lessons from My Mistakes

December 13, 2009

Foliage in the deck border (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) This is the second in a series of posts about garden design principles that I have learned the hard way – by making mistakes.

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn was that creating a flower garden is not just about flowers.  Early in my gardening career, it was always flowers that I fell in love with at the garden center, and the plants I brought home were always in bloom. Even as I stopped focusing just on individual plants and learned to group and repeat similar plants, my focus in designing flower beds was still on the flowers – on color combinations and on which flowers would bloom together and which would bloom in succession. But somehow, even with this careful attention to flower combinations, my plantings ended up looking kind of thin and haphazard. And I couldn’t figure out why.

The breakthrough came for me when I discovered shade gardens. The first was a garden I visited on a local garden tour that featured several enormous glaucous-leafed hostas. I knew about hostas; I had some medium-sized, unremarkable green ones (divisions provided by my mother when I first bought this house) planted on the steep slope by my back door to hold the sandy soil in place. But I had never seen specimen hostas like these before. In the weeks and months that followed, I began to look closely at hostas and other foliage plants and to appreciate the incredible variety of foliage sizes, shapes, colors and textures.

Deck border in early summer (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

By the time I began a new perennial border on the northeast side of my house by the deck, I was ready to focus on the foliage of plants appropriate to this mostly shady spot. I visited Fernwood, a wonderful nursery in Swanville, Maine that specializes in shade plants, to get ideas and to buy plants. So focused was I on how to repeat, contrast, and combine foliage that I didn’t notice until the following year that almost all the plants I had chosen had flowers in shades of pink, white and lavender. This is a large flower bed, and it took me three years to complete it; but when I looked out at the finished border, I felt for the first time that I had created something beautiful. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not just foliage that makes it beautiful. When I view this flower bed from  the deck on an early summer morning (like the one on which the above photograph was taken), it is the repetition of pink flowers – three varieties of Geranium in the foreground, Heuchera, Dicentra spectabilis, and Tradescantia in the middle distance, pale pink columbines and deeper pink irises further away – that make my heart sing. But it is the layering of different types and heights of foliage that provides the rich, lush look and makes those pink flowers pop.

Once I had this successful experience with a shady border, the next step for me was to realize that foliage was important in sunny perennial plantings, too. Unlike annuals, most perennials do not bloom all season long; this means that, at any given time, many plants will not be in bloom and will be represented in the garden by their foliage.

Foliage in the blue and yellow border (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

The above photo of the blue and yellow border in June shows the important contribution of foliage to the overall composition. I like the way that the foliage shape of Geranium ‘Brookside’ (on the right side of the photo, in the foreground) is repeated in the foliage of Rudbeckia ‘Herbstsonne’ at the back of the border and the way that the lance-like foliage of daylilies, siberian irises and tradescantia contrasts with the broad rounded foliage of plants like lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis).

Since I’ve learned that designing flower gardens is not just about flowers – that combining repeated and contrasting types of foliage is just as important as combining repeated and contrasting types of flowers – I’ve been much happier with the results of my efforts.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2009 11:36 am

    Hi Jean~~ And with so many fabulous foliage plants on the market, focusing on foliage has never been more enjoyable.

  2. December 13, 2009 12:08 pm

    aloha jean, great post, your right a nice mixture of foliage plants with flowers blooming at various times really creates year round in hawaii, its almost sensory overload with all the different variegations and color combinations that sometimes editing is the key to real cohesion…shade gardens really give you the right opportunity to show a variety of textures, variations, height and also color….nice post


    • Jean permalink*
      December 13, 2009 10:17 pm

      Noel, I envy you your enormous range of foliage options. There are fewer options here on the zone 4/5 border, which probably makes choices a bit easier to make. I’m not really aiming for year round appeal, since my garden is mostly dormant in the winter; but I do have several evergreen rhododendrons to go with the evergreen pine and hemlock woods that surround my garden.

  3. December 13, 2009 12:35 pm

    You pics are wondeful. Your narrative is very instructive. I enjoy visiting. Since you have a sandy soil, how do you keep your hosta watered? if you want any ligularia seedsor roots or hosta cuttings, please let me know. I am happy to share.


    • Jean permalink*
      December 13, 2009 9:59 pm

      Jim, Hostas generally do quite well in my sandy soil. The unfancy green ones on the back slope are very tough plants, growing in full sun and in very lean soil. In the rest of my garden, they are growing in soil that has a lot of organic matter added, and I normally mix a little Soil Moist silicon crystals in the soil when I plant them. For all my flower beds, after I weed in the spring, I lay down soaker hoses, and then bury the hoses under mulch. (If you look carefully at the last photo, you can see the black soaker hoses sticking up through the mulch here and there.) During dry periods, I will typically run the soaker hose in each bed for about 1 1/2 hrs. once a week. This system works fine for hosta.
      Ligularia is another matter altogether. I only have one planted (‘The Rocket’) and it has not done well. Since it is the only yellow plant in the deck border, is not happy there, and is not adding much, I’m thinking about tearing it out and replacing it with something that will be happier here (possibly a tall pale pink astilbe that I need to move from the bedroom border).

  4. Nell Jean permalink
    December 13, 2009 12:55 pm

    The lessons to be learned from your garden apply whether we can use the same plants or not. Not all hostas do well here, but certain gingers which do make an acceptable substitute. I try to look at photos thinking, not of the plants by name, but as ‘spiky plant, mounded plant, variegated plant’ to try to fit it into my world.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 13, 2009 10:14 pm

      Nell, I like this way of categorizing plants. I’m just starting to think about design of a new area of the garden that will be either partly shady or high shade (not sure because I haven’t done a sun study there yet). I want to focus primarily on foliage plants in this area and I’ve been thinking of them in categories like big foliage, medium foliage, small foliage, feathery or ferny foliage — in addition to plant height and foliage color.

      Grace, you’re right; it’s wonderful to have so many foliage plants to choose from. I’m looking forward to a spring trip to my favorite shade nursery!

  5. December 13, 2009 2:24 pm

    Hello Jean,

    It is so easy for us to get caught up in a myopic viewpoint and not step back enough in order to look at the garden as a whole being sure we repeat textures and color, balance and harmony are needed. Lovely beds!

  6. December 13, 2009 2:53 pm

    Beautiful and informative post. I love all of the cool colours in your garden. I started from the other end of the gardening spectrum, with trees and shrubs, and not giving much thought to flowers which I use to find fleeting and showy enough to be dissapointing when done. I’ve changed my tune lately, and have added many more, as long as the rotate throughout the season there’s always something to look forward to.

  7. December 13, 2009 3:47 pm

    I am suppose to be taking a break from the blogging world but I couldn’t resist taking a peek at your post. I am glad I did. Your garden is so pretty and beautiful combinations. Well written post… a standing ovation! 🙂

    • Jean permalink*
      December 13, 2009 10:23 pm

      Amy, sorry to be a bad influence on your break from blogging, but I’m glad you came to visit. 🙂

      Thanks to you, Diana, and Rebecca for your positive comments about my garden. Since I live in the woods at the end of a rural dirt road, hardly anyone ever sees my garden. Sharing what I like about it with others was a big part of my motivation for starting this blog.

      Rebecca, by starting with trees and shrubs, you probably avoided a lot of the problems I had early on before I learned to pay attention to foliage. One of the important ways I’ve discovered of bringing foliage into the garden is through the use of shrubs.

  8. December 13, 2009 7:20 pm

    A valuable lesson, and one not everone learns.
    By the way, you are my 1,000th pick.

  9. December 14, 2009 1:09 pm

    I totally agree with you! I started buying plants years ago based only on their flowers. Now the foliage is just as important in my garden. Even now in the winter many of those plants stay evergreen so their foliage is even more valuable to me . The Geraniums and heucheras have looked great all winter here.
    PS I wish my Lady’s Mantle would stand up as nicely as yours 🙂

  10. December 14, 2009 3:07 pm

    Hello Jean,

    This is another great design post! I talk to my clients about how important to take into account what plants will look like when they are not in flower. I love how gray-green foliage contrasts so nicely with the dark green and how feathery foliage looks by large leaves.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 15, 2009 10:08 am

      Noelle, I’m always happy to have my hard-won design insights validated by a professional! And thanks for pointing out the different shades of green that can also be part of foliage design.

  11. December 14, 2009 10:19 pm

    Great post. I think your design journey was just about identical to mine. Designing with a focus on foliage resulted in much more satisfying gardens for me, too. Lovely photos, Geraniums are a fave of mine here in Alaska as well.


    • Jean permalink*
      December 15, 2009 10:06 am

      Christine and Catherine, I think it’s fun that we all went through the same process of starting with flowers and only later discovering the importance of foliage. As a life-long learner and a teacher, I’m interested in the patterns of how people learn. Maybe this is just a process that most flower gardeners have to go through because it’s so hard to juggle all these different things when you’re first starting out. Maybe it’s only after we’ve gotten comfortable with our understanding of flowers that we can start paying attention to foliage.

      Catherine, growing geraniums in Alaska probably creates some challenges. I always feel like I’m pushing the envelope a little bit with the zone 5 plants in my zone 4/5 garden; do you do the same thing with the zone 4 varieties?

  12. December 20, 2009 1:14 pm

    I agree – I too focused on flowers rather than foliage. I have removed quite alot of the herbaceous now to make room for shrubs and different types of acers and other plants with “evergreen” appeal. My one regret is that I did not add a few choice conifers at the early stage in the garden – trying to alter that now – I’ve just got a Taxus Baccata but it will take years to look substantial against everything else in the garden.

  13. January 15, 2010 7:34 pm

    Very inspiring! I especially like the last photo, of the blue and yellow border.

    Am hoping this will be a year of putting in more flower beds for us, I love your idea here!

    • Jean permalink*
      January 15, 2010 7:44 pm

      Annie, I’m in the beginning stages of designing a woodland border, so I’m getting to think about foliage in a serious way. I can’t wait for early summer, when I’m going to drive out to my favorite nursery for shade plants and consider all the possibilities.
      Although I love the deck border for it’s serene feeling and for the fact that it was my first really successful flower bed, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I love the blue and yellow border best!

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