Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
July, 2012
Regional Report

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This exciting combination of sensitive fern and a self-sown hybrid hosta 'Halcyon' proves foliage can be as engaging as flowers.

Favoring Foliage

It would be safe to say, I believe, that a typical garden is about 90 percent foliage. Like most gardeners, however, I''ve always focused my attention on the showier aspects of plants. This means flowers primarily, but also a smattering of berries and other fruits, some seed heads, and bit of eye-catching bark.

In the past two years, though, three significant changes in my gardening life have necessitated a shift in my thinking, so that I' now putting a much higher value and emphasis on foliage.

First, I pulled up stakes and moved from a sunny suburban landscape to an established urban neighborhood distinguished with towering hardwoods and graceful understory trees. Where I once had light, I'm now working with shade, as well as a much different plant palette.

It's taken me awhile to figure out why so few shade plants have showy blooms, but the reason became clear to me when I considered food crops for my garden. At optimal times of year, I can produce some leaf crops such as lettuce, but I can never grow fruiting crops like tomatoes because it takes a lot of energy for a plant to flower and fruit. The energy, of course, comes from sunlight, with the plant's power resulting from the amount of food (sugar) produced by photosynthesis.

It makes since, then, that many ornamental shade plants produce less significant flowers than their sun-loving counterparts, or reproduce by a different method.

Second, I've also downsized the garden. Though I have about the same amount of space as previously (nearly an acre), the new landscape is divided into zones that require varying amounts of care.

More than half the space is comprised of a series of north-facing terraces that descend to the Reedy River. Separated from the backyard by a retaining wall, this area is being cleared of invasive plants but will never be intensively cultivated.

When the garden is smaller, by choice or necessity, there's more emphasis on each plant and no room for shirkers. Foliage must be an attraction in its own right, not just a supporting player.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my goal here is to create a garden that I can manage for years to come. I no longer want to orchestrate a succession of bloom times or coordinate complicated color schemes in high-maintenance perennial borders. My days of pinching, deadheading, staking, cutting back, dividing, clearing, and toting debris to the compost bin are over.

A large part of my current strategy is keyed on plants with winter interest, bookended by bursts of color in the transitional seasons. Flowering trees, shrubs, and bulbs will take the stage in spring, while deciduous foliage will grab the spotlight in fall.

According to this timetable, the garden can take a break in summer and so can I. But here's the trick -- shade perennials, chosen chiefly for interesting foliage, will prevent the garden from being just ho-hum.

In a couple of weeks, I'll share my ideas for creating foliage combinations that provide interest in lieu of flowers. And then I'll examine the merits of a handful of hostas and ferns, the summer backbone of my shady, low-maintenance garden.

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