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 ‘Diabolo’ 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
slideshow of colorful shrubs
(Click on the each thumbnail to move the slides along, or use the arrows that appear on the sides of the big image when you hover your cursor there.)
profiles of colorful shrubs
- Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ (variegated yellow-twig dogwood)
- Blue-leaved Rosa glauca
- Wine-colored Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’
- 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’
- Corylopsis, both gold-leaf and otherwise
- Browse all my shrubs and trees
This is a really good suggestion…find shrubs that have colorful leaves so that the interest is not limited to the short flowering season.
I also liked your illustration of how to tie things together, “just like you wouldn’t place a purple sofa in a room without a supporting cast.” Truly a helpful idea. Thanks.
Your comment about the Purple Sofa is so colorful and unexpected. People have to move the color along, or else it becomes a spot, where the eye lands, and stays.
Working all the colors from gold to blue-green, and gray to burgundy, across the garden, add visual interest and excitement.
That rosemary leaf willow is gorgeous – the colour and delicacy of the leaves.
While I don’t own any land and can’t plant shrubs,your beautiful photos of the ones you’ve planted inspire me to try some of the same ideas about color in my flower beds. You have examples of this idea in the plantings of foliage plants along your walkway. You have definitely given me something to explore. I love your amazingly beautiful slideshow!
I am soon to graduate from a Horticulture Program. Your yard is beautiful and you have many excellent shrubs. Nature has truly rewarded you from all your hard work over the years. Thank you for sharing a piece of your life with us all. I am truly inspired by your website. Keep up the good work.
Welcome, June, and congratulations on your approaching graduation! I hope you will be a regular here in the months and years to come.
Thanks for the shrub ideas. I am looking for ideas to close in my yard ( it’s in a developement) and these are very beautiful,bringing variation into the garden.