By Marty Ross
Midwestern gardeners love their flowers, of course, but blooms are fleeting. When you choose plants for their foliage as well as their flowers, your garden sparkles vibrantly and remains interesting and beautiful, even after the most gorgeous flowers fade. Indeed, some plants—such as ornamental grasses—are better known for their foliage than their flowers.
Foliage serves many purposes. For example, flowers stand out against the flashy backdrop of variegated maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Cabaret’, above). Miscanthus’ wispy foliage also adds a lot of movement. If you walk past it or work nearby, you can hear the foliage rustle gently in the breeze.
Ornamental grasses are at their best when they’re backlit, with the morning or evening sun shining through the foliage. Plant them to take advantage of the light at the beginning and the end of the day. Along a path at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, dwarf Japanese bloodgrass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’), right, takes on a sunset glow.
Texture and foliage contrasts are even more important in shade gardens than in sunny gardens. The silver-splashed fronds of Japanese painted fern, right, shimmer in shade. Plant this small fern at the front of a shady border or along a woodland edge. Other perennials with variegated foliage, such as Solomon’s seal and lungwort (Pulmonaria), have flowers, but you’ll enjoy them most of all for their snazzy, two-tone leaves.
The variety of leaf sizes, shapes, colors, and textures among the enormous family of hostas might inspire you to create an all-hosta garden in shade. Puckered leaves have tremendous substance; tiny leaves draw you closer, so you can delight in the details. The strappy, slightly ruffled, variegated leaves of hosta ‘Night Before Christmas’, right, hold their own as specimen plants. But they also look great with other hostas, or in front of shrubs in a shady border.
A touch of silver foliage adds polish to any garden. The silver leaves of artemisia (A. ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’,) right, sparkle like footlights in front of the dark-green leaves and deep-purple flowers of perennial salvia. Silver leaves make a dramatic backdrop too. Try planting annual marigolds in front of a cluster of artemisia, and you’ll see the artemisia glow behind the bright marigolds.
Durable ground covers with tiny leaves are especially appropriate when your gardening is at a very small scale, such as in the cracks between fieldstones along a path, or in a fairy garden. A gardener in Door County, Wisconsin, used golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) around the fairy garden she planted at the base of a big tree. The little ground cover only grows a couple of inches tall, but it is sturdy and tough enough for foot traffic, whether you’re all grown up or just a little sprite.