Garden Designers Roundtable: Foliage

by Andrew Keys on February 23, 2010

Say hi to the main display bed in my backyard, pictured in “Before.” Two old crabapples frame the “view,” backed by a suburban New England fence I hate but must live with. It’s supposed to be white, but the constant shower from the crabs ensures it will be forever dingy.


But no matter! Elegant decay is the name of the design game for this space. New terrace goes in this spring, so I’ve spent winter building my planting plan. Click to enlarge the photo “After (Proposed)” at left. (All photos clickable.)

New Orleans Courtyard

What, you ask, is this concept, and what about foliage? Well, I’ll tell you, and you will think I’m cuckoo. Though New England is my home, a part of me pines for another New place, and that is New Orleans. I was born and raised just over that city’s horizon, and my earliest design sensibilities drew upon its architecture, its style, its plants. Thus, I’ve always wished for a New Orleans courtyard.

Architectural: Yucca

I set about figuring how to bring a little Big Easy to my backyard, in an untacky way with a dynamic group of plants, and address conditions and context –- the fence, some shade, damp and dry soils. This bed is one piece of the puzzle. Fine: Lespedeza thunbergii

Foliage is factor numero uno when building an interesting plant group, and indeed, in the New Orleans courtyard, flowers play second fiddle to subtropical foliage.

Foliage, to me, is about the interplay first of shape, then stance, then sheen. Is a leaf is bold, medium, or fine? Then, a sub-question, is it architectural? Finally, is it shiny or soft? You know this, I’m sure.

Bold: Tetrapanax

Here, I plan to use bold, architectural plants to establish the aesthetic, supported by subtler, contrasting filler plants, not all of which you can see. I sketched my Photoshop plan in black and white, the better to truly observe, my dear.

I’m using foliage to spark visual conversation between the board-straight fence and flowy, organic… Well, everything else. The fence gave me fits the way it loomed all rectilinear; then I realized hey, I need plants that speak the fence’s language. Bold: Ensete I added architectural Yucca at the base of the group and, more importantly, a pedestal pot of Cordyline at a step-down height between the fence and ground.

Fine: Carex muskingumensis I’m using foliage to create rhythm, repeating the same Yucca/Cordyline shape, as well as Tetrapanax and Sabal minor (entries on BOTH those plants coming soon). Fine foliage like Lespedeza and Acer japonicum supports the bold. Miscanthus foliage ensures movement. More difficult to see here is the table talk between glossy and matte, e.g. shiny Orixa and soft Tetrapanax. It’s a little shady in parts of this bed, so reflective foliage is key; softer foliage corresponds to the texture of the fence, the terrace, the trees’ trunks and leaves above. Altogether, the effect is prismatic.

Last but certainly not least, foliage here conveys regionality. Fine: Acer japonicum These plants’ shapes correspond directly to those I love from youth, a subtle shift from the strong New England regionality of the fence and bluestone terrace. Smell the gumbo? Sure, I could stick a “Who Dat” sign in my flowerbed, but we’d still be standing in New England. Did you feel at all… Transported? That, friends, is the goal.

As a designer, I’m “the plant guy,” so I traffic in plant lists. For your reference, here are some foliage lists for this bed, including some plants you can’t see. Take a look! Maybe you’ll see what I’m going to talk about for March’s GDRT topic, color.

Architectural: Cordyline Filigreed and free-spirited: these plants of mine are so FINE →

They are flora, hear them roar: my BOLD plants →

Not content to be bold: ARCHITECTURAL plants raise the roof →

Indispensable; stuck in the middle: my MEDIUM plants →

AND don’t forget to visit my fellow Roundtablers blogging this month!: Fine: Miscanthus

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA »
Debbie Roberts : Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT »
Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA »
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX »
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip in the Garden : Los Altos, CA »
Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA »

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