Great Foliage for Flower Gardens

Living in England for over thirty years, I am well acquainted with the chocolate box images of an English cottage garden. Memories of towering delphiniums against a weathered stone wall, and the heady fragrance of old-fashioned roses on a warm summer’s day with a froth of ladies’ mantle at their feet still linger and make me smile. I designed my gardens in England in that style as well as some of my earlier gardens here in the Pacific Northwest and have been asked to re-create this romantic style for several clients in recent years.

However these days I make sure to include some gorgeous foliage plants to frame those flowers and keep the garden looking fresh and colorful even when things aren’t in full bloom. This is a hard sell for some clients who struggle to accept this means a few fewer flowers but when executed well this mixed design approach results in a far lovelier garden than could have been achieved otherwise.

To ease the mental shift I try to include especially pretty shrubs, some of which also have blooms. I also look for looser shapes rather than stiff forms. These are a few of my favorites that look at home mingling with the flowers.


Midnight Wine weigela adds depth to Rozanne geranium and echoes the color of the dark stamens


Available in heights ranging from 2′ to 8′ and foliage in shades of green, bronze, black, or variegated with cream, white or pink, this shrub certainly gives you options. Tubular flowers in spring attract hummingbirds and bees and may be pink or white according to the variety.

These are woody, deciduous shrubs that take full sun or partial shade, and are drought tolerant once established if the soil is moisture-retentive and reasonably deer resistant. (Deer may browse new tips but rarely damage the plant entirely).

Magical Fantasy has the palest pink flowers and looks beautiful planted with whirling butterflies (Gaura)

Varieties I have grown include My Monet (dwarf, variegated pink, green, and white), Midnight Wine (short, dark leaf), Magical Fantasy (mid-sized green/white variegated leaf), and the regular variegated form which is more of a creamy-yellow variegation.

Smoke bushes

A purple and chartreuse smoke bush flank this bench in the lovely garden of Carol Ager, Woodinville WA

I can’t imagine a garden without these and love that I now have enough space for quite a few. These are typically back-of-the-border shrubs, especially some of the older varieties which can grow to 10′ or more. There are a few that are closer to 6′ but I have found that soil and light conditions have a considerable impact on mature height as of course do pruning.

Smoke bushes

For the largest leaves – but a the expense of the ‘smoke’, cut down the shrub by two-thirds in spring as new growth is showing (but after the danger of a severe freeze is passed). This technique is called coppicing and results in a better-shaped, fuller shrub with outstanding foliage.

Old Fashioned smoke bush seems to blend with any other color in the garden

Currently growing in my own garden are Grace (dusky purple), Royal Purple (smaller leaves that are very dark purple), Golden Spirit (mid-size shrub with chartreuse leaves), and Old Fashioned (teal foliage on a mid-sized shrub).


Double Play Gold has fabulous spring color!

With seasonal color changes, pretty flowers, drought tolerance, and an easy attitude these should be in your garden! There are several species and many named varieties available so you can have flowers and foliage from spring until late summer with fall color a late highlight.


Ogon has a much softer foliage

In my garden, I have several Ogon (sometimes called Mellow Yellow; Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon) which grow 5’ tall and wide. The finely textured golden leaves emerge as early as late January and the branches are studded with white flowers in early spring.

Also blooming in spring is a golden form of Vanhoutte’s spirea which sparkles in front of a dark green Hinoki cypress.

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