Quick and Easy Color

Try these can't-miss plants for a lush look all summer.
Ellen Ruoff Riley

Imagine a garden that's on fire with color even though there's nary a flower to be found. The world of vibrant foliage brims with options--bold, beautiful, and so simple to grow. This garden belongs to Robbie Caponetto, whois new to gardening. While work often takes him away from home, he still wants to come back to an easily maintained, colorful border. We think we've found the perfect answer.

What We Did
Planning a garden with flashy foliage is no different from working with flowers. Choose a palette, and look for selections in that color family. Introduce assorted textures, sizes, and shapes for an interesting balance. Read labels to determine how tall and wide plants are when mature.

A 'Sumatrana' red-streaked banana (Musa acuminata 'Sumatrana') becomes the garden's focal point and anchors the bed at one end.This nonhardy selection is planted in a large terra-cotta pot for instant height and to make it easy for Robbie to overwinter it in his basement. Three smaller containers are placed in the bed at equal intervals for additional vertical interest. In these pots we planted two selections of black elephant's ears--one with purplish red stems (Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic') and the other veined in chartreuse (C. esculenta 'Illustris'). The broad, deep-hued leaves form a line of bold foliage throughout the long, narrow bed.

Sun-loving coleus surround the pots and deliver the bulk of the garden's color punch. 'Rustic Orange' coleus, with luscious copper-colored leaves rimmed in bright green, dominate the bed. A burgundy selection, 'Crimson Velvet,' and a chartreuse one, 'Gay's Delight,' complement the scheme, mirroring shades within the orange coleus. Below, 'Aurea' creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea') covers the garden floor with golden leaves.

The wall's deep green blanket of creeping fig vine provides a rich canvas for the vibrant foliage border. Unfortunately, this deep color also makes the border seem dark and confining. To break up this expanse, we placed pots filled with fluorescent green 'Marguerite' sweet potato vine on top of the wall. The vigorous climber drapes down between the elephant's ears and adds an unexpected vertical interjection of color.

 

Minimal Maintenance
The great thing about foliage is that besides offering dynamic color, most choices are low-maintenance. Only twice during the summer did the coleus have to be cut. Here's how to do it. Using sharp pruners, snip branches directly above a set of leaves. Remove elephant's ear leaves when the edges turn brown or stems become weak. Slice them off at the base of the stems, and new ones will soon emerge. Sweet potato vine's rapid growth requires occasional trimming as well, so eliminate the excess foliage above a leaf to keep the plant looking vigorous.

Newly installed borders require consistent water until roots settle in and plants begin to grow. As summer progresses, the coleus planted in the bed will need less attention. Pots, on the other hand, dry out more quickly, and the moisture-loving elephant's ears, bananas, and sweet potato vines will appreciate a thorough dousing daily or every other day as the summer progresses.

Feed foliage once a month with an all-purpose, water-soluble fertilizer such as 20-20-20. Always moisten the soil with plain water prior to feeding to prevent the plant food from burning the roots.

If you want instant color and a lush garden without a lot of work, try the wonderful world of foliage. Success is so simple.

Design Tips
An easy way to plan a border is to think of it in three layers. Consider these ideas.

  • Choose tall selections for the back of the bed to establish the top level. Potted plants add height and focal points, becoming another option to establish the top layer of the border.
  • Next, fill in the middle range with shorter selections.
  • Lastly, add creepers and tumbling plants on the bottom to soften edges and complete the stair-step arrangement.

Color echoes
Repeating shades throughout a bed gives a unified, pleasing appearance. Here's how we did it in Robbie's border.

Chartreuse or Green

  • 'Aurea' creeping Jenny (lime green leaves)
  • 'Gay's Delight' coleus (chartreuse leaves with dark purple veins)
  • 'Marguerite' sweet potato vine (golden-green foliage)
  • 'Rustic Orange' coleus (coppery leaves with chartreuse edges)

Burgundy or Black

  • 'Black Magic' elephant's ear (black leaves with purplish red stems)
  • 'Crimson Velvet' coleus (burgundy-red foliage)
  • 'Illustris' elephant's ear (black leaves with veins of green)
  • 'Sumatrana' red-streaked banana (maroon leaves with green stripes)