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Using Variegated Foliage in Garden Design

Text by garden designer Rebecca Sweet

variegated foliage

Every so often I’ll meet a new client who emphatically requests that I leave all variegated plants out of their garden’s design. Personal tastes aside, these strong reactions tend to be a result of past “variegated mishaps.” For example, combining too many variegated plants in too small a space may have resulted in a chaotic-looking garden. Or perhaps a visual headache was created when one forgot to harmonize all the colors of a multicolored leaf. Whatever their reasons, I understand their concerns.

First, let’s define variegation. In a nutshell, variegation occurs in a plant’s foliage when a portion of the normally green leaf is replaced by a different color, most commonly white, cream or yellow. This may appear as a thin, elegant margin of color around a leaf’s edge, a blotch in the center of the leaf—or anything in between.

Some of the most spectacular variegated foliage contains several colors within each leaf, as seen in Houttuyniacordata (USDA Zones 4–10), Japanese painted fern (Athyriumniponicum var. pictum 'Burgundy Lace'; Zones 5–8) or mirror bush (Coprosmarepens ‘Pink Splendor’ (Zones 9–11). By repeating or contrasting nearby plant colors, these multicolored leaves are a fantastic way to introduce unusual and jaw-dropping color combinations. Just remember to make sure all the colors of the leaf harmonize with its neighbors, not just a few.

To break up the “sea of green” effect that can result from an overuse of green shrubs, add a variegated shrub or two for a welcome contrast. Try the creamy white and green foliage of a variegated buckthorn (Rhamnusalaternus ‘Variegata’; Zones 8–10) or dogwood (Cornuskousa ‘Snowboy’; Zones 4–8), or the bold gold foliage of a ‘Gilt Edge’ silverberry (Elaeagnus xebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’; Zones 7–11) or goshiki false holly (Osmanthusheterophyllus ‘Ogon’; Zones 6–9). The unexpected pop of color will help keep the garden interesting.

For those who garden in the shade, it’s an ongoing challenge to find warm and cheerful colors to counterbalance the dark shadows. Yellow variegated plants are my go-to solutions, because they not only act as the missing sunshine to lighten up the dark space, but they also add that much-needed burst of warm color. Besides the many varieties of golden hostas, some of my favorite plants for the shade include the delicate grassy foliage of the Carex oshmensis ‘Evergold’ (Zones 6–9), the mid-size Rhododendron ‘Goldflimmer’ (Zones 5–8) or the evergreen and deliciously fragrant Daphne odora Marianni (‘Rogbret’; Zones 7–9).

It’s a common misconception that variegated plants should never be planted next to one another. Not so! Just remember to vary the leaf size and shape of each plant to ensure it stands out from its variegated neighbor. And as an added safety net, include a nearby non-variegated plant within the same color family to act as the visual referee between the two.

So the next time a garden bed has you stumped, have fun and experiment with variegated foliage. You’ll see for yourself the dazzling effects it can create!

Image credit: Jennifer Photography Imaging / E+ / Getty Images