A Gathering of Leaves

Grouping containerized foliage plants creates long-lasting drama

by SEAN CONWAY

photography by WEBB CHAPPELL

GARDENING IS SUPPOSED TO TEACH US about patience and delayed gratification, but when it comes to planting containers, patience goes out the window. When I’m done setting out my containers for the season, I want to be able to create a look or a mood instantly. To my mind, that’s one of the best reasons for using containers in the first place.

Many people like to combine a number of different plants in their containers. While the results can be pleasing, I find that this approach is best employed in areas that call for a single planter—next to a door, for instance. Mixed planters are also useful for creating interest in small spaces, such as on a balcony or narrow deck, where there isn’t room for more than one pot.

My preference, however, is to use multiple pots of single specimens, which I then group to form either a themed collection or an eclectic planting. One of the main advantages of this technique is its flexibility: plants are easily replaced if they grow too big (or not big enough) or if they look spectacular for a few weeks but ragged at other times.

There’s a saying in the nursery business that “color sells.” While it’s true that people tend to gravitate more toward flowers than foliage, in container gardening, foliage rules (at least in my containers it does). I have nothing against flowers; I grow thousands of plants precisely for their flowers. I just happen to grow most of them in the ground. I save my containers for plants that will give me more bang for the buck, and that means plants with distinctive foliage. For one thing, flowers are fleeting. And waiting for a plant to grow large enough to produce flowers, and then trying to keep the plant in bloom, can be exercises in frustration. In contrast, foliage sticks around and can stay attractive for weeks or even months.

When you mention foliage to most people, they think of their grandmother’s philodendron. While there’s nothing wrong with philodendrons, there are multitudes of other plants whose leaves are every bit as exciting and dramatic as the most beautiful of flowers. Shape and texture are prime considerations—grouping containers of plants with similar or contrasting leaf shapes and textures can produce remarkable results. A plant with bold, tropical-looking foliage, for example, tends to create a calm, relaxed look. In contrast, a plant with stiff, upright, spiky leaves creates a lively, energetic look. Excitement also results from using plants with variegated foliage, especially when the pattern takes the form of white or yellow edging around each leaf. Variegation can also heighten other qualities. Foliage that is both spiky and variegated looks even more animated because the eye has to focus on varying color tones in addition to the narrow width of each leaf.

Groupings of plants with similarly shaped foliage are most successful if you add a twist of some kind. In the group of bold-leaved plants shown on page 47, for example, the twist comes from the addition of one or two plants that create focal points, thus giving the eye a place to rest. Here, the focal points are the chartreuse colocasia and jasmine. In the grouping of mostly variegated plants (opposite), a few nonvariegated plants have the same effect.

Whether you plant dozens of containers, like I do, or just one or two for the back deck, try relying on foliage instead of flowers. I think you’ll be surprised, and delighted, at the results. H

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