A garden that is all flowers is like a cake that is all icing.”

Most of you reading would call it frosting rather than icing, but the sentiment stands: foliage is a key component of a garden.

We have so many options when choosing foliage. We can have big leaves and small leaves, textured leaves and leaves with interesting shapes. However it’s colourful leaves that I would like to discuss here.

From Darkness…

Dark leaves bring drama into the garden.

Dark foliage in a potted display at Wisley in England

Think in terms of a photograph; so often those images that really catch our eyes are the ones where there is a good balance of light and shadow. In our gardens the dark foliage gives us those shadowy tones to counter the lightness of the greens and the colours of our flowers.

…Into The Light

The lighter leaves, either variegated or a solid colour, are useful for a different reason.

Variegated Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’, the wedding cake tree, taking centre stage

These are the foliages that bring the lighter tones, continuing with the example of a photograph. The brighter colouring counters the dullness that you can see from too much massed vegetation.

Yellow catalpa, Indian bean tree, contrasting with other colours on a bright and sunny day

A boldly variegated tree or shrub strategically placed can be every bit as much a focal point as an statue or sculpture.

Tread Carefully

Bringing in another analogy, let’s talk about seasoning food.

Some people like heavily seasoned food while others prefer light seasoning. Whatever your taste it’s incredibly important to use the right seasoning and not overdo it. Too much salt or too many herbs and spices can ruin a meal.

Purple-leafed maples look great close up, but when they get big in the garden…

This is very much true when we come to using dark or light foliage. The temptation is to embrace the options available to us, to go around the nursery looking for plants with purple, yellow or variegated plants to add ‘seasoning’ to our gardens. Surely if you balance the number of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ plants you will get a happy balance, right?

Less Is More

Being highly strategic in your choice of plants and subsequent placing is key.

You can get away with mixing things up florally in the borders because flowers tend not to stay the same all year. If you decide to be adventurous with your flower colours (please do!) then you might find the effect a little too bold at some points in the year but less so at others.

A large copper beech does nothing to brighten a gloomy day

When it comes to foliage things are a bit different. You have the foliage effect every day that the plant is in leaf, and this can end up being quite a commitment, especially when you consider how much of any given plant is foliage as opposed to flowers.

Using larger trees and shrubs can become particularly difficult as the overall size of the plant magnifies the effect. It’s so tempting to go big and bold with a real statement tree, but could you find that you can actually have too much of a good thing?

I planted a golden dawn redwood, Metasequoia ‘Golden Oji’ (usually sold under the trade name ‘Goldrush’) in the garden of a 750 year old house surrounded by green countryside. Was I mad? Quite possibly, but the idea is to provide a single dominant bright element to the garden.

Maybe I was mad to plant a golden tree?

And I really mean single too; to avoid clashing with any other plants in the garden I will be sticking solely to green foliage everywhere else on the 13 acre site. This might seem rather extreme but I think it’s really important to use these plants strategically.

Overdoing It

Visiting a funfair can be a great experience. The lights, the sounds, the activity.

After a while it can all get rather too much. You’ve enjoyed yourself but it’s now time to go home.

Some variegation is simply exquisite

You can reach this point of fatigue in the garden too. Lots of colours can be very exciting but can also end up being a bit overwhelming after a while. It’s not just a matter of taste as such, but also a matter of psychology: lots of colour in a busy and active garden is great, but if you want your garden to be a place of quiet relaxation then too many bright colours together can end up with the opposite effect.

Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ is popular for its dark foliage

The idea of a few big splashes of colourful foliage might seem like a really great idea at the nursery, but in the garden they can become a bit of a liability.