Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
June, 2011
Regional Report

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Dramatically variegated plants, such as this gardenia 'Variegated Double', shimmer in the shade.

Get Fancy with Foliage

If I had to point to the major failing of the garden at my new home, it would be that it lacks color. Since the landscape is shady, brightly-hued flowers will always be at a premium, but I'm left to wonder why so few trees and shrubs with colored foliage, and especially variegated foliage, were incorporated into an otherwise pleasing arrangement.

Don't get me wrong, I like green foliage and understand how to use it to good effect. An abundance of green is calm and unifying, as well as cool and gentle, and it can refresh the spirit when used alone. But to create an all-green garden that is engaging rather than ho-hum, a combination of green hues is required -- those tinged silver, bronze, blue, and gold -- along with varied leaf sizes, shapes, and reflectivity.

In my garden, there is very little difference among the foliage of the predominate trees and shrubs. The leaves of tulip popular (Liriodendron tulipifera), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), and many other plants, though all slightly different, are roughly the same size and color. Even the green-leaved Japanese maple, with its finely cut foliage, is lost in the sea of sameness.

My solution has been to carefully edit the landscape, removing a few nondescript plants to allow for for the addition of colored or variegated foliage. Already a fungus-plagued viburnum has been replaced by a newly planted 'Tamukeyama' Japanese maple, a small weeping tree with dark red, deeply-dissected leaves.

The most exciting additions, however, are those with variegated foliage, such as Gardenia jasminoides (G. augusta) 'Variegated Double'. This double-flowering gardenia, planted within the arc of the circular driveway, is highlighted with wide, irregular margins of creamy variegation that shimmer in the shade. Though I'm not a fan of gardenias in general (their fragrance is too strong for my taste), the striking leaf color of this shrub will provide year-round beauty in the landscape.

This selection of gardenia, like most other variegated plants, is a slow grower. In time, it will reach 5 to 8-feet tall, with a 3 to 5-foot spread. The shrub will be drought tolerant once established, but will always require monitoring for pesky aphids and white flies. Despite this drawback, it's worth the trouble.

I've also been bewitched by a Fatsia japonica 'Variegata', which is brightening a shady nook on the opposite side of the driveway. In addition to its usual glossy, dark green, deeply lobed leaves measuring more than 12-inches wide, the foliage of this fatsia is highlighted with uneven, creamy white borders.

Both the variegated gardenia and fatsia should perform perfectly well in the garden with average care. It's important to keep in mind, however, that only green leaves (or parts of leaves) have the chloroplasts necessary for photosynthesis. Cells that lack chlorophyll don't contribute much, if anything, to producing energy, which is why dramatically variegated plants are less vigorous, harder to propagate, and in many cases, more expensive.

Since they are a bit more delicate, it's always best to ensure the conditions that most plants grown in the Middle South appreciate: fertile soil, decent drainage, sufficient irrigation, and a protective layer of mulch.

Their location in the garden requires careful consideration too. The more variegation a plant displays, the more sun it needs to produce the same amount of food as an all-green plant, but strong sunlight can scorch variegated leaves. In general, it's best to look for a site that offers slightly less light than you would give an all-green form of the plant, giving preference to spots with morning or late afternoon sun.

When possible, give variegated plants the spotlight. Place them near the edge of beds and along pathways where they are easy to admire, or use them as focal points to draw the eye.

Never be afraid to mix and match, but take care to juxtapose different patterns and sizes of variegation. Narrow stripes or a sprinkle of small spots won't complete or appear "too busy" when combined with a plant that offers bolder splotches or highlights.

And of course, green-leaved plants make the perfect companions. In garden's like mine, there's no shortage of possibilities.

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