Say it with foliage

There are more ways to dazzle than with flowers. The action in any garden lies in the shape and texture of its greenery.

If you mix different leaf shapes, sizes and textures, you can create an understated green-themed garden, which is not only low-maintenance but soothing and peaceful, too.

Green is a great foil for all other colours. In my garden, a north-facing, shady courtyard has become one of the most successful areas. Here, the tough, strongly-lobed Hydrangea quercifolia foliage contrasts with expansive, fan-shaped, evergreen fern, Polystichum setiferum ; a lush, if rather invasive carpet of Soleirolia soleirolii thrives, too, while the spiky Mahonia aquifolium adds some punch. This predominantly evergreen tapestry looks effective all year round.

Two reconstituted stone urns stand at the entrance to the courtyard and are home to a pair of box balls which I sometimes swap for a duo of Viburnum davidii later in the year. You see V . davidii everywhere, but common as it is, its leathery, veined, evergreen leaves always make a strong statement and its winter display of iridescent blue fruits is fantastic.

Asking me about my favourite plants is like asking me who my favourite child is. Yet I really can’t imagine a garden without the box, Buxus sempervirens . Its fresh, early-spring growth is always inspiring after an embattled winter, and its slow growth and long lifespan make it one of the best investments for any garden.

Cheaper and more vigorous is Lonicera nitida . I have clipped my L.n. ‘Baggesen’s Gold’ into a dinosaur. Actually, it was supposed to be a goose but our children make roaring noises when they see it, so dinosaur it is. L.n . ‘Lemon Queen’ is altogether brighter and will remain bright even in shady areas.

Box cuttings are straightforward enough, and are a good idea if you’re gardening on a budget and intending to use the shrub as an edging to a bed. Now is a good time to take cuttings of healthy young shoots, about 7cm long. When you remove a shoot, it should come away with a heel of wood at its base. Trim any excess wood off the heel with a sharp knife, and pull off the leaves from the base, leaving half a dozen small leaves on top. Dip the base of the cutting in hormone rooting powder and place in a pot filled with gritty compost; then water. Space your cuttings apart so they don’t touch and place outdoors in a sheltered spot until planting out the following spring.

Ornamental grasses are enjoying a long overdue surge of interest. You’ll find a wide selection at garden centres. Grasses are simply hardy perennials, and are generally perfectly happy in average garden soil. Most prefer good light, but the luzula species, Deschampsia cespitosa and carex will all take some shade. Ornamental grass heads give a nice vertical lift to planting, to contrast with the bold leaves of foliage perennials. A distinctive, evergreen, clump-forming grass is Helictotrichon sempervirens with grey/blue leaves and tall flower stems in early summer. The dead foliage and stems of some grasses can be left through winter and cut down before growth starts in early spring. Grasses do well in pots or tubs, such as the reed-like Equisetum (or horsetail). Feed and water them well during the growing season. They can be split every two or three years.

Some of the most stunning foliage effects can be found in moisture- loving plants, such as Gunnera manicata and Rheum palmatum . These giant, hardy perennials thrive in moist, humus-rich soil in full sun or partial shade. Optimum growing conditions can be created by burying a heavy-duty polythene sheet 60cm deep, piercing a few holes for drainage at 1m intervals, and back-filling with pea shingle. Enrich the soil with organic matter, such as well-rotted manure. Soak the area before planting and keep moist in dry spells.

This is a good time to have a look around the garden: take a notebook and camera, making a record of where your planting could be improved for next year – you’ll certainly forget otherwise. Take photographs, too, and remember to date them.

A leaf out of my book
  • Alchemilla mollis or lady’s mantle – Still one of the most valuable ground-cover plants, with downy, scalloped leaves that hold water droplets like bulbs of mercury. Will self-seed freely if happy.
  • Cynara cardunculus – A giant of a plant, with huge, felted, jagged leaves as well as thistle-like purple flowers from late summer.
  • Helictotrichon sempervirens – This evergreen grass makes a fabulous foliage contrast with C. cardunculus . When grouping plants together, think soft and fluffy against hard and glossy.
  • Rosa glauca – A species rose with glaucous foliage and a purplish bloom. Blood-red hips that last for several months follow pretty but insignificant pink flowers.
  • Arum italicum subsp italicum ‘Marmoratum’ – Dark-green leaves marked with white veins make good ground cover in winter. Mine are still looking vibrant in the shady courtyard.