Outdoor Foliage Plants

The Growing of the Green

Wood spurge (image) puts on its best display in spring. It's a perennial plant.
Wood spurge is colorful in spring. David Beaulieu

Flowers are the highlights of many gardens when they are present, but foliage plants (plants grown primarily for their leaves) boast a reliability that is not to be scoffed at. Blooms come and go. But if you grow specimens with long-lasting leaves, there will always be something in your garden outdoors to delight you.

Sure, you can coax a longer blooming period out of many flowers by deadheading them -- but that involves extra work on your part.

And while that extra work is worthwhile, I can't help but be impressed by the fact that the subtler display put on by foliage plants is largely gratuitous.

Okay, so that's just my lazy side speaking. There's no doubt that a mix of foliar standouts and flowering beauties is best. But to make sure that you appreciate the diversity of options offered by outdoor foliage plants, below (and on Page 2) I discuss several of them, of varying heights. Notice how different in its characteristics each of these selections is from the rest:

Foliage Plants for Ground Covers

I use the terminology "ground covers" here simply to denote height: in this case, as an indication that the examples presented are relatively short. Some are classic ground covers (i.e., plants used literally to cover large patches of earth), some aren't.

Pachysandra is a ground cover, spreading to fill in an area via underground runners.

Reaching a height of about 6 inches, pachysandra bears insignificant white flowers in spring. That's OK, but it's grown for its leaves, not its blooms. Pachysandra prefers shade, so it's a great choice for those problems areas you have that don't receive much sunlight. It is sometimes called "Japanese spurge," but don't confuse it with wood spurge, which is also essentially a foliage plant (although it does flower).

Liriope is another ground cover but grows a bit taller than pachysandra, reaching about 1 foot in height at maturity. And whereas pachysandra exhibits fleshy, oblong leaves, liriope resembles a grass. Liriope puts out a spiky flower, but its true value lies in its versatility: it is amenable to a sunny location or to partial shade.

Foamy bells (Heucherella) and the related coral bells (Heuchera) can be showier picks than either pachysandra or liriope. Plant breeders have produced a number of cultivars that bear leaves with jaw-dropping beauty. For example, 'Solar Power' foamy bells displays fantastic golden leaves. An outstanding plant partner for Solar Power -- if you enjoy color contrasts -- is black mondo grass.

Artemisia is another plant with colorful leaves. But in this case, the color in question is silver. In fact, the cultivar name of a popular landscape specimen in this genus is 'Silver Mound' artemisia.

There is a with large, two-toned leaves that is, unfortunately, invasive. But you can certainly grow this interesting plant in pots, so as to contain them while still enjoying their marvelous foliage. 

On Page 2 we'll look at some taller example you can use as outdoor foliage plants....

On Page 1 we considered some of our shorter options for green foliage. Now it's time to look at some options with a bit more height, including small shrubs and not-so-small shrubs. Meanwhile, don't forget choices that offer flashy colors, too, such as Tricolor sage (see below). Some offer golden leaves, for example; others blue leaves, such as Blue Star juniper, blue spruce trees and Blue Rug juniper.

If you want gold with height and you want it fast, you could also grow a vine: namely, golden hops.

Green Foliage at an Intermediate Size

Tricolor sage plants do put out violet-colored blooms, but they are often grown more for their variegated leaves. The older foliage on this herb tends to be green in the middle, with an irregular white margin; the younger leaves are purplish. These foliage plants are also fragrant plants (although the aroma they afford is perhaps an acquired taste).

Read article: Tricolor Sage

Although they do bloom, hostas are most often grown as foliage plants. Classified as perennials, many hostas are nonetheless used in the landscape as if they were small shrubs (note, however, that hostas vary greatly in size, depending on the type). For instance, these shade-loving foliage plants are sometimes used in border plantings as "leafy edging" for a planting bed.

Read article: Hosta Plants

Want green foliage with a tropical feel? Many Northern homeowners include elephant ear plants in their landscapes, treating them as annual plants. I think they look especially nice near water features (see picture).

Read article: Elephant Ear Plants

Ferns are a classic choice for shade. You're not always restricted to shady areas with these ancient plants, though.

I grow my own interrupted fern in a location that receives substantial sunshine during the course of the day, including afternoon sun. I do, however, keep its soil thoroughly moistened.

Read article: Interrupted Ferns

Small Shrubs: Green Foliage With Greater Height

Boxwood shrubs are broadleaf evergreens: they don't bear needles. Prized for their densely packed light-green leaves and rounded, compact growth habit, English boxwoods are small shrubs, reaching a height of 3 feet, at most. There are other boxwoods from which to choose, some of which attain to greater heights. These elegant foliage plants have traditionally been used for formal garden hedges in areas with full sun to partial shade.

Read articles:

Like boxwoods, yews are evergreen shrubs. But unlike boxwoods, yews are needle-bearing shrubs. English yews grow to about 4 feet tall, but they are "small shrubs" in terms of height, only. For their spread is much greater (12-15 feet): they are hardly compact plants! There are other yews from which to choose, some of which attain to greater heights. Yew shrubs are often used as hedges or foundation plants, especially in shaded areas (where many other shrubs wouldn't perform well).

Read article: English Yews

A Tall Foliage Plant That Is Not a Shrub

Papyrus, formerly used as a writing material, now often functions, instead, as the centerpiece of a water garden. Invasive in some of the warmest states in the U.S., elsewhere, papyrus plants will die back after an autumn frost and are most easily treated as if they were annuals: let them spruce up your water feature during the summer, then replace them next year.

Read article: Papyrus Plants

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