WHEN I LOOK AT PHOTOS OF MY GARDEN, there is one group of plants that seems to do the most work to tie things together: the shrubs with colorful leaves. Whether in shades like gold or white-variegated or silver (all of which seem to advance, or pop forward visually, to varying degrees, catching the eye and saying “look over here at me”), or dark wine tones that hunker down and ground things, creating a sense of depth, I have a lot of them. A story, podcast and slideshow about some favorites, and simple tips on how to use them.
Compared to the plain-vanilla form of a shrub—the one with green foliage—a gold- or wine-leaved or variegated selection means more than a single season of interest from the same square footage. When the early spring flowers are done on Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon,’ for instance, it looks a whole lot better than plain S. thunbergii (which I probably wouldn’t allot space to; too much of a one-trick pony for me).
I find such plants especially useful in breaking up the green monotony of large shrub borders or plantings of multiple shrubs used as hedging or screen, avoiding the “big black hole of green” effect that it might otherwise read as from a distance.
COLORFUL SHRUBS (or trees, for that matter) can create an axis or focal point—particularly the lighter-colored ones. Help the eye get to there by hinting at a couple of smaller stops along the way with a similarly colored shrub or a mass of perennials here and there before the big-impact moment at the endpoint. Heading up my front walk, for instance, where I have a potted gold-leaf shrub shouting up by the door (above), punctuation points of golden forest grass (Hakonechloa ‘All Gold’) and golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, not in photo)—a mass or two of each staggered partway up the path—help me find my way home.
These showy shrubs won’t look at home without such companionship, a supporting cast of similarly colored perennials and even trees to help anchor them, any more than you’d expect a strong statement like a purple sofa to pull together a room without adding some purple elsewhere. In one border, for instance, just beyond a variegated shrub dogwood, a mass of variegated ribbon grass seems to reinforce the point.
Selecting different species of shrubs with a common foliage color but a contrasting scale and texture can also make for a more compelling addition to an otherwise all-green planting. Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’ and Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’ and the purple smokebush, Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple,’ all live in one border here, repeating the idea but also being same-but-different rather than monotonous. Dark-leaved Sambucus ‘Black Beauty,’ an ornamental elderberry, would fit into the scheme nicely as well.
That said, don’t buy only these showier forms, or put too many in a planting, or it can get pretty busy–just like my photo collage up top. A crazy quilt is not the desired landscape effect, especially when using variegation: you can have too much of it.
There are links to profiles of many of the ones I grow, just beneath the slideshow thumbnails.
Radio Podcast on Colorful Shrubs
Slideshow of Some Colorful Shrubs
(Click on the first thumbnail to start the show, then use your arrow keys on your computer or toggle from slide to slide by clicking the arrows next to the captions. Enjoy!)
Profiles of Some Colorful Shrubs
- Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ (variegated yellow-twig dogwood)
- Blue-leaved Rosa glauca
- Wine-colored Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’
- Gleaming Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’
- Golden spreading yew, Taxus baccata ‘Repandens Aurea’
- Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’
- Silvery-leaved rosemary willow, Salix elaeagnos
- Variegated Kerria japonica ‘Picta’
- Browse all my shrubs and trees