Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
September, 2011
Regional Report

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Variegated tapioca plant is an eye-catching example of foliage color for sunny areas during our hot southern summers.

Fabulous Foliage for Sunny Spots

One of the best ways to add color to our warm season southern landscapes is to use foliage. Summer brings heat that sends many of our blooming landscape plants to that great botanical garden in the sky. Those that don't fry and die may continue on but without the blooms that were so prevalent in the spring.

We have a number of foliage options, including temperate perennials and woody annuals, as well as tropical plants that carry on quite well despite the triple digit temperatures. Here are a few of my favorites.

Purple heart (Tradescantia pallida) is the Rodney Dangerfield of landscape plants; it just can't get no respect! Perhaps familiarity brings contempt, but this low growing perennial plant can take full blazing sun even without supplemental watering and then bounce back with the arrival of rain. The deep purple color makes a dramatic impact in sunny areas. I like to use it in containers where it can spill over the sides. If it gets rather ragged looking just snip or hoe the top off! Believe me it will grow right back.

Dwarf Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii 'Atropurpurea Nana'), which goes by the trade name of Crimson Pygmy, offers deep crimson foliage in a compact shrub form. Set it between taller green shrubs and low growing groundcover or lawn areas for dramatic contrast.

While we are in the purple/burgundy color range I shouldn't forget purple fountain grass and the wax begonias, which come in green foliage and burgundy foliage cultivars. The burgundy ones hold up best in direct summer sun here in the Lower South. Need more purple plants? Try Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight' or 'Magilla' perilla, which loves the sun if provided adequate soil moisture. 'Magilla' has purple and green leaves with bright pink centers. For a large purple plant, castor bean is a good sun performer. Just keep in mind should be avoided where young children may have access to the interesting-looking but very poisonous seed pods.

There are many types of ornamental amaranth. I like the types that form plumes of color at the top of the plants. Some cultivars also offer burgundy foliage which actually steals the show from the colorful blooms!

Copper plant (Acalypha wilkesiana) makes a dramatic statement in the landscape. The large copper-colored foliage and upright plant form make this especially nice around a pool area or even just an outdoor patio or deck. There are a number of great varieties, each with a different foliage color including 'Louisiana Red', 'Orange Giant', and 'Polynesian Pink'. For darker foliage 'Chocolate' caricature plant (Graptophyllum pictum 'Chocolate') shows off interesting deep purple-green foliage with pink splotches.

Coleus isn't just for bright shady areas anymore. Many new cultivars are offering increased sun tolerance, including two of my favorites; 'Burgundy Sun' and 'Plum Parfait'.

Ornamental sweet potatoes do well in sun as well as in bright shade. The light chartreuse foliage of 'Margarita' and the deep purple of 'Blackie' are especially striking and add great contrast in the landscape.

Silver and gray are also great ways to break up the sea of green that is most of our landscapes. Cardoon is a perennial in most of the Lower South and makes a four to five foot tall mound of silvery-green foliage. Most gardeners will think it is an artichoke as the two look very similar. If you live in the drier western parts of the lower south, 'Powis Castle' artemisia is a low growing subshrub that takes the sun and heat well. It tends to have more disease problems in rainy areas -- but then where are rainy areas this year?! There are other artemisias such as the over enthusiastic 'Silver King' and the dwarf 'Nana' that do well in other parts of the Lower South.

Cannas are often overlooked for landscape color. While the blooms are nice, I'm especially fond of the types with colorful foliage. Choose from cultivars with deep burgundy foliage to ones with green and yellow striped leaves. Then there is the outrageously gaudy cultivar 'Phasion' that goes by the trade name Tropicanna. Its foliage is striped with a combination of burgundy, red, pink, yellow, gold, deep green and chartreuse.

Speaking of gaudy, variegated sea hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus 'Variegatus') makes an outrageous specimen plant with its green and white splotched foliage and burgundy new growth.

Fall planting season is coming soon. Now is a great time to plan not just for fall planting but also for next spring to insure a colorful summer next year.

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