Gardener's notebook: don't impulse buy flowers when you could be planting foliage instead

 (Sydney Rae/Unsplash)
(Sydney Rae/Unsplash)

In the past week, London’s streets and parks have undergone a natural transformation.

It amazes me every every spring; not so much the proliferation of spring blossom or flowering bulbs but the sudden, and rapid transformation of brown and grey to green from spindly trees to garden borders.

I worry that this might be the spring the plants never come back, but year after year they do, and I am relieved of my fears.

The green in our gardens and outdoors spaces accounts for the majority of the form and texture, with flowers providing just fleeting splashes of colour.

Broussonetia papyrifera has unusually shaped leaves (Agnieszka Kwiecień)
Broussonetia papyrifera has unusually shaped leaves (Agnieszka Kwiecień)

Yet some reason, foliage is commonly overlooked and taken for granted.

We’ve all been to a garden centre and purchased plants on impulse because of their flowers. Flowers make us feel good. But the backbone of all good gardens is their foliage.

In cities we have learnt to see this green as harmless blobs, quickly accepting its presence before thinking about other things.

Some scientists have dubbed this term ‘plant blindness’ because plants don’t move and aren’t a direct threat to us. But our ability as humans to distinguish between more shades of green than any other colour suggests that we were once far more intune with our natural surroundings.

Mexican feather grass can bring softness to your garden (Stan Shebs)
Mexican feather grass can bring softness to your garden (Stan Shebs)

The world of foliage has even more variation in shapes and colours than flowers themselves. It’s fascinating (I promise) and once you start looking, you begin to discover more and more strange and unusual forms.

Whether it is a balcony display or a border, having a mix of foliage is the key to a considered planting approach. Dialling up on big leaf plants will give a tropical feel to your space, whereas opting for pointy and silvery foliage will give the feeling of a hotter, drier climate.

As ever, when selecting plants, the most important thing is to choose plants that are suited to the conditions you have.

Here are the five leaf types to try at home:

The Big Ones

Some of my favourite plants are big leaf plants. Make the most of London’s microclimate by growing slightly more tropical species like canna and calla lilies, and bananas and woodwardia ferns.

The Small Ones

It’s easy to forget about the little guys. Small leaved plants are great at filling gaps and help a garden feel more natural. Babies breath, campanula, and muehlenbeckia are great gap fillers.

The Feathery Ones

Lots of plants have lacy or fluffy foliage, with leaves that are deeply cut. Plants like these can bring a real softness to garden spaces. Try things like Mexican feather grass, fennel and its cousin giant fennel, ferns or cow parsley if your space is shady. Yarrow has smaller feathery leaves with flowers in many colours.

The Long and Pointy ones

Long straight foliage gives a new dimension to foliage planting. If you feel like something is missing from an arrangement of plants, adding a linear dimension often helps get the balance right. Consider grasses like miscanthus and Calamagrostis, or miniature (unless you have space) pine trees like ‘Mugo’.

The Unusual Ones

Not all leaves are cut equally, whilst many are round or heart shaped, others are far more intricate. Tetrapanx has huge deeply lobed leaves, the paper mulberry has fantastic trident-like leaves and Fatsia polycarpa has long finger-like leaves.