Avoid foliage monotony with these design tips

Updated Jul 15, 2022
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By Lauren Dunec Hoang/Houzz contributor

While swaths of a single plant variety can be peaceful in the landscape, there’s far more interest in a garden bed with a bit of diversity. Think of the impact a single bold agave can have planted among soft grasses or how your eye is drawn to deep plum foliage in a sea of green leaves. If there’s a trick in choosing foliage to break up monotony, it’s proximity and contrast.

Contemporary Landscape

The more you can get a plant to stand out from its neighbors, the more your eye will be drawn to and delighted by it. As you choose foliage plants for your garden bed, remember these basic elements of landscape design: color, form and texture. Let’s see how creating contrast among these elements can have a stunning effect.

Contemporary Landscape

Photo: Form and Foliage

Color. When selecting foliage color, you practically have a rainbow of hues to choose from. For the most striking combinations in the bed, pair plants with contrasting foliage colors in close proximity. Blues and blue-greens have a cooling effect and can set off red, plum and magenta foliage placed close by. Silver, chartreuse and variegated foliage shimmer next to darker greens — particularly useful in brightening shady areas.

Bainbridge Residence

Photo: Wittman Estes Landscape

Form. Consider both the shape of the plant and the size and shape of its leaves. Beds made up of similarly sized plants with the same leaf shape can be fairly dull. For the most drama, mix plants with big, bold leaves with smaller-leaved perennials and ornamental grasses. In shade, look for plants with large palmate leaves, such as bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis), shown in this Seattle area garden with strappy, grasslike sweetflag (Acorus sp.).

Texture. Just as important as color and form, the texture of a plant is determined by how it would feel to touch (or looks as though it would feel). Pairing plants with different textures in the planting bed makes each plant’s natural characteristics stand out. Some leaves, like those of camellia, are glossy and smooth, reflecting light almost as if they were lacquered. Others, such as lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), shown here, are covered in tiny protrusions, making them as soft and inviting as velvet. Cactuses offer no such temptation with their spikes and prickles.


Photo: Andrew Keys

Here are a handful of gardens that display contrast, each highlighting a design plan for breaking up foliage monotony.

Pat Brodie

Photo: Pat Brodie Landscape Design

Bold forms With fine textures

It works every time. Choose plants with bold, broad leaves — paperplant (Fatsia japonica), agaves, cardoons or phormiums — and pair them with light, wispy plants — sagebrush (Artemisia spp.), muhly grass (Muhlenbergia spp.) and ferns. The greater the contrast, the more the dramatic the display.

Here, bold octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) and fine-leaved ground covers create an eye-catching, drought-tolerant garden.

Hastings, Bainbridge Island, WA

Photo: Bliss Garden Design

The slender blades of golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra cv.) and lacy Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) leaves contrast with broad-leaved hostas in the back bed and medium-leaved ‘HGC Pink Frost’ hellebores (Helleborus x ballardiae ‘HGC Pink Frost’) in the foreground.

AKM Project by Sifford Garden Design

Photo: Jay Sifford Garden Design

Along this dry streambed, bold-leaved hostas contrast with delicate conifer needles, ruffled purple coral bells (Heuchera sp.) and fine-textured bright green ‘Angelina’ stonecrop (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’). As the plants fill in and grow to maturity, the contrast among the coarse and fine textures will become more dramatic.

Coos Bay

Photo: Mosaic Gardens

Deep purple foliage with bright silver punctuations

Black, purple and deep burgundy leaves act as dark, moody foils for pale green, silver and golden leaves. For purple and burgundy, turn to smoke bush (Cotinus spp.), purple-leaved plums, black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) and wine-colored ‘Plum Pudding’ coral bells (Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’).

For silver and chartreuse foliage, golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) and ‘Silver Falls’ dichondra (Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’) are good options.

Coos Bay

Photo: Mosaic Gardens

While the presence of either dark or light foliage breaks up the monotony of beds composed of all medium green, get the most drama by including both lights and darks in a single bed.

Contemporary Craftsman, Bainbridge Island, WA

Photo: Bliss Garden Design

Here, a golden smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria cv.) nearly glows behind a low stone wall, complemented by its deep purple cousin. A Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) balances the plum-colored foliage to the left of the patio. In the foreground, variegated ‘Silver Swan’ euphorbia (Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan’) forms a mound of silvery foliage among flower spikes of purple salvia.

Along the front walkway of this home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, ‘Evergold’ sedge (Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’) contrasts with magenta-colored ‘Brass Lantern’ heucherella (Heucherella ‘Brass Lantern’) and black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’).

All-green with varying texture and form

With all plants in the same shade of emerald green, this narrow side yard could potentially be monotonous. But mixing up the plant form and texture creates a stylish and visually engaging design. Succulent glossy rosettes of aeonium (Aeonium sp.) contrast with plumelike foxtail ferns (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myers’) and the thin needles of fern pine (Podocarpus gracilior) hedging.

Masculine Modern

Photo: Molly Wood Garden Design

In another all-green color palette — and in this case even the same rounded plant form — interest comes from contrasting plant texture. Clipped boxwood (Buxus sp.) and ornamental grasses work well together due to their very different textures.

Design Elements In the Garden

Photo: Laara Copley-Smith Garden & Landscape Design

Contrasting leaf shapes and textures is another good way to add interest to beds with subtler variation in color. In the foreground of a primarily green shade garden, the broad leaves of hostas and glossy bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) stand out against the slender leaves of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra cv.). The purple leaves of coral bells (Heuchera sp.) deepen the color of the shadows.

Woodland garden 1

Photo: Jay Sifford Garden Design

You may choose to rely on color, form or texture — or a balance of all three elements — to create more contrast in your garden. However you go about it, keep in mind that there’s no wrong way to plant. Creating a garden that inspires and delights you is just as much about the process as the end result.

Great Plant Combinations

Photo: Alyson Ross Markley

EDITOR’S NOTE:This article is from Houzz. Hoang is landscape designer and was previously a garden editor for Sunset Magazine and in-house designer for Sunset’s Editorial Test Garden.

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