9 Great Foliage Plants for Container Gardens

Although flowers win the hearts and minds of many container gardeners, foliage plants can be beautiful and they are often essential to the design of large pot arrangements They add texture, contrast, and interest, and many are quite easy to grow.

  • 01 of 09

    Elephant Ears (Colocasia Esculenta)

    colocasia

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    Colocasias (Colocasia esculenta), also known as elephant ears or taro, are impressive plants because of their leaf size. They are graceful, elegant, and often huge foliage plants. Useful for very large pots, they grow in partial shade and come in an enormous range of leaf shape, size, and color. This plant can grow to 6 feet in height, so make sure your pot can bear such a massive specimen.

    This tropical perennial plant (hardy in zones 8 to 10) likes moist, warm conditions but needs to be kept sheltered from high winds. They can also be grown indoors in bright, indirect, or filtered light.

    Design tip: Grow colocasias in very large pots. Plant a medium-height plant around them, such as fuchsias, coral bells, or coleus. Plant draping plants around the edges of your pot, such as creeping Jenny, ivy, or sweet potato vine.

  • 02 of 09

    Coral Bells (Heuchera American)

    container garden picture of foliage plant heuchera

    Kerry Michaels

    While heuchera (Heuchera americana), also known as coral bells, does send up flower spikes that can be beautiful and work well as cut flowers, it's main value is as an amazing foliage plant. It is hard to kill, adaptable to different light levels and is drought tolerant. A common garden perennial that is grown in zones 4 to 9, it is often grown as an annual when used in pots, but potted specimens can sometimes be overwintered in a sheltered location.

    Heuchera comes in a wide range of leaf shapes and a fabulous array of colors, from dusky browns and grays to pinks and lime greens. Most forms an attractive mound and will keep this form without being pruned.

    Design tip: To show off the shape and colors of these spectacular plants, place heucheras alone in a pot that is the same size as the plant or smaller. Or you can use it as a filler plant in a large mixed container.

  • 03 of 09

    Hostas (Hosta Spp.)

    Hostas

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    Hostas (Hosta spp.) are notoriously beloved by deer, which is a good reason to grow them in containers where they are easier to protect. They are just lusciously leafy. They come in many sizes, leaf shapes, and in colors from lime green to blue-green, with yellows in between. Some are striped and variegated, while others are solid tones of yellow, pale green, dark green, and blue-green. Hostas are known as a shade plant, but some will tolerate a surprising amount of sun— yellow varieties are typically more sun-tolerant. Although usually grown only for foliage, hostas do flower, and the blossom spikes are attractive to some butterflies and honey bees.

    Hostas are perennial in USDA zones 3 to 8. If you live in a cold climate and choose a pot that is tough enough to last all winter outside, you can leave your hosta potted up in a sheltered location.

  • 04 of 09

    Persian Shield (Strobilanthes Dyerianus)

    container garden picture of Persian Shield in mixed contianer

    Kerry Michaels

    Some plants you want to have every year, and Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), certainly can qualify. They are flat-out stunning, easy to grow and care for and look good in many different container styles. This tropical evergreen (hardy only in zones 10 and 11) is almost always grown as an annual.

    The purple and black leaves of Persian shields are show stoppers—almost iridescent. Too much sun and the leaves will bleach out; too little sun and the plant might get leggy, so make sure to place your container in partial sun.

    To keep the plant full and well-shaped, pinch it back during the growing season. Keep Persian shield moist; do not let the soil dry out.

    Tip: If you live in an area colder than zone 10, you may be able to bring the plant in to overwinter. Place it in a bright spot, out of direct sun. It's also easy to propagate Persian shield by cuttings, either by rooting them in water or in soil.

    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    Coleus (Plectranthus Scutellaroides)

    Close up of coleus plant

    Yutthana Jantong/Getty Images

    Any list of foliage plants has to include coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides, formerly known as Coleus blumei). There are so many varieties with different leaf shapes, colors, textures, and sizes that the choices are overwhelming. From browns to reds to vibrant pinks and greens, this is a plant that pretty much covers the color spectrum. Leaf shapes and sizes extend from the simple and small to the complex and enormous.

    Mixing different varieties of coleus can make a stunning display. Keeping them pinched back so they stay bushy rather than leggy is important. Also, cut off any flowers to keep leaf production up.

    Most coleus varieties prefer full shade over partial shade (at least give them afternoon shade to avoid scorching leaves). If you live in a cold climate, they can be overwintered indoors in a 70-degree home, although those with more exotic leaves can be somewhat more temperamental to keep alive.

    Tip: Coleus can also be easily propagated over winter by taking leaf cuttings and rooting them in water. Pot up the rooted cuttings in late winter, and by spring planting season, the potted specimens will be vigorous and ready to plant in outdoor pots.

  • 06 of 09

    Kale (Brassica Oleracea) and Chard (Beta Vulgaris)

    container gardening picture of rainbow chard and nasturtium
    Photo © Kerry Michaels

    Chard (Beta vulgaris) and kale (Brassica oleracea) are two excellent examples of container plants that are not only beautiful but edible as well. Both are super easy to grow and can add both color and texture to mixed container gardens.

    Dinosaur kale (Brassica oleracea "Lacinato") is a fabulous blue color and can add both texture and personality to a mixed container. "Redbor" kale has a ruffled leaf and its color range extends from magenta to dark purple.

    Both kale and chard last well into winter and are said to taste even sweeter after a frost. Ornamental kales and cabbages are sold in nurseries in the fall and they are beautiful as well. Although they are edible, these ornamental varieties are not known to taste particularly good—they can be tough and bitter.

  • 07 of 09

    Herbs (Various Species)

    Potted herbs

    Juliette Wade/Getty Images

    Herbs add color and texture to a container garden, and many add fragrance as well when the leaves are touched. Many are easy to grow, and it is fun to nibble them when watering your garden. Purple sage, golden oregano, curly parsley, and rosemary are all as easy to grow as they are beautiful.

    Plant herbs alone in pots, in mixed containers, or make interesting themed herb gardens, such as a pizza garden, herbs of Provence garden, or a salsa garden.

    Tip: Some herbs are biennials, like parsley, so you may want to plant them in a container as an annual unless you choose to bring these types inside to overwinter and fool them into thinking that it's just been one long season. If you bring the pot into your kitchen for the winter, you'll continue to reap its culinary benefits.

  • 08 of 09

    Ferns (Various Species)

    container gardening picture of foxtail fern

    Kerry Michaels

    Ferns are a never-ending source of amazement. Each has a different personality, yet all are graceful and lithe. There are thousands of different ferns to choose from, though fewer that are appropriate for pots. Some container garden favorites include foxtail ferns (narrow and fuzzy-looking) and Japanese painted ferns, which come in striking variegated silvery foliage as well as purples and oranges. You will find a huge variety of leaf size and style to suit your containers and contrasting plants.

    Ferns can be easy to grow, and although some thrive only in shade there are also some will tolerate sun. Ferns generally like shallow containers (not more than 6 inches) with a good blend of peat moss or compost. And don't waterlog them—most prefer relatively dry shade. Some varieties even prefer fully drying out before being watered again, so check the water needs of the type you choose and make sure it's compatible with the other plants in the container.

    Tip: Many ferns will overwinter indoors, but some will survive in pots outdoors in sheltered locations.

    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    Rex Begonias (Begonia Rex-Cultorum)

    Rex begonias

    Brian Carter/Getty Images

    Rex begonias (Begonia rex-cultorum) can be weird and wondrous. The leaves can have patterns, shapes, and colors that are so extreme that it's hard to believe they grow naturally. Rex begonias look fabulous on their own in simple pots or can be placed in mixed containers for an eye-catching accent. They can also look great in hanging baskets.

    Tip: Although often planted afresh as new annuals each spring, it's also possible to bring rex begonias indoors for winter in cold climates, where they can be happily domesticated as houseplants. Keep them in a warm, humid environment with indirect light and moist, not wet, soil.