There can be much more to a beautiful garden than masses of flowers.  Although a ‘sea of colour’ border is spectacular it may be fleeting in beauty, and can lack definition through the seasons if it has no underlying form or structure.  

Putting together the shape and outline of different types of plants to create harmonies and contrasts is what can give a garden a distinctive, cohesive look.

Fatsia japonica and Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – A ‘green on green’ combination gives a subtle harmony of two hardy shrubs that will both cope well with shade; left is Fatsia japonica (False Castor Oil) sporting glossy, broadly fingered leaves, while to the right is the newish Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ delicately feathery and full of grace.

Plants are endlessly varied in their forms, ranging from the vertical spires of narrow conifers, down to the mounded shapes of Lavender, giving way to the creeping horizontal mats of Ajuga and Thyme.  Feathery Fennel emphasises the strong form of Phormiums.  Wispy grasses intensify the solidity of leathery Hosta leaves.

Phormium ‘Black Adder’ and Plectranthus argentatus

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – Some of the most dramatic plant groupings involve a number of different contrasts, in this case of light and dark, as well as of form — skyrocket verticals set against a softly rounded mound. The wonderfully glossy rich purple Phormium ‘Black Adder’ is underplanted with the felted leaves of Plectranthus argentatus in one of its variegated forms. The Plectranthus hales from Australia and is not hardy (kept from year to year by cuttings in the Autumn), but similar effect would be to substitute the hardy Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ (formerly Senecio)

Playing with the geometry of nature, in juxtaposing plants with differing forms and habits delights the eye, and gives the planting a clear framework on which to build the more ephemeral delights of colour and scent.  In other words, the way plant varieties are grouped together is the essence of great gardening.  

Phormium ‘Rainbow Sunrise’ and Canna ‘Australia’

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – Another dramatic phormium grouping see Phormium ‘Rainbow Sunrise’ against the rounded leaves of the dark Canna ‘Australia’. This duo also gains resonance from the tone on tone colouring of the two plants together.

Although it is a daunting prospect to tackle the redesign of an established garden, in reality plants come and go.  Once you have finished mourning the loss of a favourite plant, the realisation comes that each demise gives a chance for a little improvement to the scheme, by then making a more considered choice of replacement that will enhance and resonate with its neighbours.

Carex trifida and Rogersia aesculifolia

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – A waterside grouping sees a ‘fountain’ of the variegated grass Carex trifida intertwined with the hand-like leaves of Rogersia aesculifolia, delighting the eye from early Spring to late Autumn. Plants adapted to wet or damp conditions often have lush expansive leaves, giving scope for the most interesting foliage combinations.

In small gardens already furnished with many favourite plants, and new ones just waiting to be to tried out, it is tempting to plant just one of each variety, but one plant very rarely looks good — unless of course it is a ‘specimen’ with dramatic or sculptural form.  The ‘one of each’ policy can produce a ‘spotty dotty’ look that is visually too restless, with no repose for the eye.

Dicksonia antarctica mingles equally well with Darmera peltata and Astelia chatamica ‘Silver Spear’

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – Foliage plants alone are perfect for furnishing parts of the garden, especially shady areas, which are intended to be calm and restful. The delicate, acid green fronds of baby tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica), can contrast equally well with the rounded, handlike leaves of Darmera peltata, or entwined with the strappy spikes of Astelia chatamica ‘Silver Spear’. Interestingly the Astelia, although adorned with glossy silver leaves, does very well in shade, whereas silver-leaved plants usually need full sun.

The key to an harmonious effect is to gather up smaller plants or shrubs in three’s or five’s of one kind, and then use these groups, set against one another, for maximum effect.  Luckily the smaller plants are often very easy to bulk up by splitting clumps, or taking cuttings, ensuring planting for style and substance does not dent the budget too much!

Heuchera 'Big Top Bronze' and Saxifraga stolonifera

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – A subtle combination of two ground cover plants for shade, both with attractively veined leaves. Above is Heuchera ‘Big Top Bronze’, underplanted with Saxifraga stolonifera giving a subtle interplay of scale, tone and form.

Making patterns with leaf colour — the subtle interplay of greens, or silver, or gold — is a never-ending pleasure that ensures a furnished garden even in the darkest months, without the need for the fleeting attraction of flowers.  Just as interesting are the many forms and textures of foliage, from the shiny and glistening spears of Astelias, through to the furry felted mats of Stachys byzantina (Lamb’s Ears), via the satiny leaves of Heucheras, and the broad ribbed leaves of Hostas.  Essentially texture gives us contrast of rough with smooth, matt with gloss, as well as providing another level of interest, that of sensation and touch.

Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’, Chionochloa conspicua and Libertia ‘Goldfinger'

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – Scale and form again relate to good effect in this grouping of grasses and hostas. The solidity of the massive plate-like golden leaves of Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ point up the wispy drooping heads of the grass Chionochloa conspicua (to the right) and give a background of contrast to the ribbon leaves of the grass-like plant Libertia ‘Goldfinger’, to the left.

Endless permutations of form and the subtleties of foliage texture can be harnessed to make the building blocks of a great planting — the answer then is to ‘compare and contrast’ for stunning, enduring effect in your outside space!  

Pennisetum macrourum and Tetrapanax papyrifera

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – Playing with scale is another great strategy to give interest and depth to borders. Here the feathery uprights of African feather grass Pennisetum macrourum, are delicately poised against the massive solidity of a Tetrapanax papyrifera leaf. As the Tetrapanax is not especially hardy, in more exposed gardens The False Castor Oil, Fatsia japonica would have somewhat the same effect. The Pennisetum started out as a single plant in the previous year, but was split in the spring to make a substantial group of three plants.

Pennisetum ‘Tall Tails’ and Astelia chatamica ‘Silver Spear’

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – No other plant gives the same effect as grasses in the landscape of the garden with their fluttering leaves catching the light, or passing breeze. Grasses are generally pest-free, need no staking, have a long season of beauty, and, if carefully chosen, add airy elegance to a scheme. Here the fountain effect of Pennisetum ‘Tall Tails’, in the foreground, is contrasting with the sword-like silver leaves of Astelia chatamica ‘Silver Spear’.

Tetrapanax papyrifera and Begonia ‘Benitochiba’

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – Gardening in smaller spaces, using groups of pots on paving or decking, can still offer opportunities to play with leaf shape and colour. Although flowering annuals are the usual way to furnish pots for the summer, foliage plants have a long season of beauty and are less demanding of care and deadheading. Here a young Tetrapanax papyrifera, is teamed up with the gloriously metallic, net-veined Begonia ‘Benitochiba’.

Begonia luxurians and Canna

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – Another idea for a foliage pot sees Begonia luxurians planted up with a dark leaved canna. The fingery brillant green leaves, against the solid ‘paddles’ of the canna would enhance the tiniest garden and give pleasure from May to October.

Sellonia ‘Richardii’ and Bergenia ‘Bach’

©Steve Lambert, Lake House Design – A telling foliage contrast sees the needle-like leaves of the small pampas grass Sellonia ‘Richardii’ poised elegantly above the robustly shiny ‘plates’ of Bergenia ‘Bach’. Both these plants are not fussy as to soil, put up with a certain amount of shade, and have a long season of interest, both in foliage and flower.

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