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Great garden design takes more than flower power

One of the more noticeable fashions in garden design over the past year has been an interest in all things green. It’s a trend that started some years ago when we started to embrace all those grasses that you now see everywhere. Garden designers have got a little bored with all that wavy grass and have moved over to a new aesthetic of foliage. I remembered looking at a photo with Carol Klein from Gardeners World and she pointed out that this particular leaf looked just like a dress by Issey Miyake – foliage as catwalk fashion!

My fascination with foliage comes from the knowledge that there are lots of plants out there that will give you 3 or 4 weeks of flowering interest but almost a year of foliage. Take some trees for example. A great small garden tree is Sorbus aria “Lutescens” , some delicate early blossom is followed by months of beautiful pale green-grey foliage that shimmers in the wind. Take note that this isn’t a tree to place in an open spot because its large ‘sail factor’ acts just like a yacht’s sail and, if the ground is too wet, the wind can knock it over.

Other great foliage trees include all the Acers such as the Japanese maples and those related to sugar maples and Norwegian maples like Acer saccharinum “Wierii”Acer griseum and Acer palmatum. These will give you fantastic autumn colours as will Liquidamber styraciflua and that old favourite of mine Parrotia persica. For something more exotic have a look at the Tree of Heaven  Ailanthius altissima or an Imperial tree Paulownia imperialis which is also great for shading a hot conservatory or garden office in the summer.

Shrubs are really good foliage value and here you can plant a really exotic mix with plants like the castor oil plant Fatsia japonica and of course all the bamboos. Bamboo has become really popular over the past few years and not without reason. In a London garden it can help provide privacy but it also gives a touch of exotic flavour to a garden as well as movement, shade and gentle noise. They can be thugs but most species sold through garden centres are suitable for medium to large gardens so check out Phyllostachys aureo-sucata “Spectabilis” and  Phyllostachys nigra, the black bamboo. Take a look at some of the striking purple foliage out there too like Cotinus coggygria “Royal Purple”  and “Sambucus “Black Lace”.

My favourite source of foliage however comes from the herbaceous plants that we usually associate with flowers. The list is endless. For an exotic, often-shady space look out for all the Hosta varieties that are easier in pots. My favourites among the almost 30 I have in my garden are Hosta “Halcyon”  and Hosta “Frances Williams” . The African lily Agapanthus has strappy leaves almost all year round as well as those amazing flower heads through June and July. Groundcover plants like Blue Bugle Ajuga spp. and Pachysandra terminalis are brilliant foils for other plants. But for something really special I have two favourites, the first of which is the Rodgersia family such as Rodgersia pinnata and Rodgersia aesculifolia  with its horse chestnut shaped leaves – and they don’t mind a slightly damp soil. My second favourite is  Bugbane or Actaea (previously and still found as  Cimicifuga) with varieties such as Actaea simplex “Atropurpurea”.

If you think there are a lot of scientific names in here well that’s with reason because you can now easily go find them on the google and it might just inspire you to have a few foliage stars in your garden.