27 July 2015 - 1:22pm

Fab foliage for impact

It’s easy at this time of year to appreciate the gorgeous flowers in our gardens. Roses, clematis, annuals such as Cosmos and Nicotiana to name a few are looking lovely right now and give our eyes and noses a visual and fragrant treat. So I thought I’d spare a thought to those plants that give us a longer term back bone to our beds and borders, foliage plants that provide a much needed foil to all that bright colour. It’s been said about the white garden at Sissinghurst that it’s not just a white garden, and that is its strength. That’s because it also has grey and green leaves in abundance. I’ve seen a garden set out in all white flowers and it looked completely OTT, like an accident between a meringue mountain and a milk float. Sissinghurst has clipped box edges, grasses and grey leaved stachys among other things setting off the lilies and roses. The balance between leaf colour and the bright, sometimes in-yer-face shiny white is perfectly judged and creates lovely calm space. Hostas are an obvious candidate to provide drama and a cooling green contrast to a flower border. Actually they do flower and these can even be fragrant, but it’s their leaves that pack a punch and have longevity. We have a big group of H. ’Sum and Substance’ underplanting a gold stemmed bamboo (pictured); no flowers at all but it’s one of my favourite combos for colour, scale and overall impact. If you struggle to stop the slugs, this is a good one to grow as it’s so big and tough they can struggle to get their teeth round it. No promises though! Or you could try Rodgersia. It has beautiful big, slightly hairy leaves and does the job a hosta does with no slug damage. They like similar conditions, light shade and damp-ish soil. For drier and sunnier conditions, grey foliage is often a good choice. Stachys byzantia, or to use its common name, lambs’ ears, is a really useful edging plant for a hot and sunny border, and the bees love it. It does flower about now, and so is best cut hard back in a month or so when it will grow fresh, new ground hugging leaves. It was one of Getrude Jekyll’s favourite plants as it is so versatile and easy to grow. Artemisia is a big family of mainly, but not exclusively, grey plants, A. ‘Powis Castle’ is one of the best with fair sized and pretty wavy edged leaves. Goes well with colourful annuals such as Cosmos and doesn’t usually flower so stays looking good for a long while. For a more tropical effect go for a Yucca. They are hardy and dramatic; just watch out for their spikey leaves which can do you real damage if you fall on one. Some folk cut off their spikey ends but I think it spoils their look so place them carefully at the back out of harm’s way. Yucca are much better than Phormiums in my view, which very quickly get brown and tatty in a cold and windy spell. I’ve got a Chilean glory vine scrambling through a variegated yucca at Charnwood; the orange flowers and ferny leaves contrast really well with the large spikes of the Yucca. I wouldn’t be without Alchemilla Mollis. I know it seeds everywhere and can be a bit of a pest as a result, but it’s a brilliant in-filler, softening paths and edges. It’s is also great in a vase with almost any other flower, a Godsend to a rubbish flower arranger like me.