Growbag Blog

Don’t leave out the foliage (see what we did there?)


Yes, yes, we know that high summer is all about bright flowers, and the zingier the better, but foliage has its place too. We want to sing the praises of some of our favourite summer leaves this week and encourage you to consider incorporating a few among all the dazzle of an early August garden.

On the whole, I am VERY MUCH a flowers-girl, me. I don’t do subtle, as a rule. But I do like pretty foliage that will set off the blooms, as well as adding colour and texture to the summer garden ‘picture’. Melianthus major (honey bush) is one of my favourites. I bet its grey-green serrated pinnate leaves would look wonderful in one of those jungly exotic gardens that are so on-trend at the mo. It must have sun though, and a hard frost will distress it hugely; I chop all the top growth off and it comes back fine by early summer, but I doubt Caroline in Scotland would be as lucky.

Melianthus major – extraordinary leaves and the scent of peanuts – what could be better!

I’ve seen it looking great in a big pot too (which presumably you could protect in winter). The beautiful leaves have the most extraordinary scent of peanuts when you brush them. The great stalky flower-stems and heads look ugly I think, so I cut them off, and enjoy my honey bush among Crocosmia and daylily blooms instead.

Bright flowers seem to increase their luminosity against a dark background, and a shrub like Physocarpus ‘Lady in Red’ can help here. I find the leaf-colour of the popular P. ‘Diabolo’ a little ‘dead’, and prefer this slightly brighter variety. The new growth is spring is a rich orange and I discovered this year that if you want a smaller shrub, you can give the whole thing a serious prune at the end of May – and it will do the whole ‘rich orange shoots’ trick all over again! You’ll lose the the pink flowers, but who cares?

Physocarpus ‘Lady in Red’ provides the perfect backdrop for Crocosmia ‘Tangerine Queen’

My last suggestion comes to life with a bit of backlighting (much like the 3Growbags on a night out) : grow the ornamental vine Vitis vinifera purpurea where the sun can shine through them and the leaves will glow like rubies. By the way, our wonderful plant columnist Louise wrote a few years back about another beautiful vine whose leaves particularly sing in autumn – link is at the bottom.

Sunlight coming through the foliage of the purple-leaved vine – who needs flowers?

Now, I’ll reluctantly hand over to Laura, who will no doubt suggest a few plants you have never heard of……………….


I hosted a visit this week from my county branch of the Hardy Plant Society and it was lovely to have the company of appreciative plants-people for once instead of my two nitpicking sisters. The interesting thing was that these experienced gardeners were as excited about the foliage of some of my plants as their flowers. So which plants were showing that their foliage can be a talking point in its own right?

The first was a climber on the back wall of my conservatory, Aristolochia grandiflora, the pelican plant. It’s a bit finicky in its growing requirements (shady but warm) but it’s beautiful heart shaped leaves would be reason enough to grow this unusual climber although the eclectic flowers were also starting to develop (and ignoring Caroline’s comment of ‘yes but who’s going to bother’ – clearly not her!)

Aristolochia grandiflora
Aristolochia grandiflora and it’s beautiful leaf shape.

Secondly, unsurprisingly, was a fern, namely Woodwardia radicans, the chain fern. Some people claim to be able to grow this outdoors (I bet Elaine could in Eastbourne if she wasn’t so busy planting yet more clematis) but mine has to stay in a glasshouse border. The flowing fronds are enhanced by the russet coloured young growth (which Caroline told me ‘looks a bit dead’ – see what I mean?) Luckily the HPS folk took a different view and I was able to find a few bulbils on the ends of some of the longer fronds to break off and give away so they could grow on their own specimens.

Woodwardia radicans
Not dead, just getting going, a lovely young frond of Woodwardia radicans unfurling

Finally, the ultimate pinnate leaved shrub. Pinnate leaves are those that divide into many smaller leaflets from a main access, such as you find in mimosas. My latest acquisition is a dwarf jacaranda called ‘Bonsai Blue’. If you believe the blurb you’ll get those beautiful deep blue flower racemes seen on enormous trees that line European cities, but on a shrub that doesn’t grow beyond 2 metres. But it will be worth it for the leaves alone which are a deeply healthy bronzy green on maroon petioles. An expensive investment for me, these novel shrubs are now on a 50% discount at Sutton’s (link at end) but my encouragement to Caroline to buy one for her new glasshouse was met with a deflating ‘too dodgy for me’…..

The ultimate pinnate foliage of my dwarf jacaranda – if only Caroline was prepared to make the effort ….


Shall I bring us all back down to earth? It’s generally my role in this family. Here in Scotland even my greenhouse is only two degrees more comfortable than outside – it’s no place for Jacarandas!

Now obviously you’ll want your foliage preferences to be ‘on track’ with the current trend for a ‘jungle vibe’ (don’t think E and L actually do ‘contemporary’). Luckily there are some that can achieve this still just about survive pretty Arctic temperatures. My top tropical trio here includes Trachycarpus fortuneii (to be fair, growth-rate more that of a jungle sloth than a cheetah); Euphorbia mellifera (down but not out following the minus 14s in January) and the ever popular Fatsia japonica (castor oil plant).

I can feel Laura’s face screwing up in distaste but that’s not all, I’ve also been going for some fairly tropical colours! She nearly fainted when she saw this in my garden:

Cornus ‘Florida Sunset’ – Laura’s face was an even better picture!

And when I told her it was called Cornus ‘Florida Sunset’ she simply kept walking but wow – look at that leaf colour!

This is what we want in our foliage – a bit of showtime. So how can my sisters not have mentioned Acers – mandatory for any garden wanting a riot of colour or perhaps a breath-taking colour contrast. I spotted this cracker on offer at Gardening Express this morning – If my Paypal account wasn’t currently frozen I’d definitely be in a ‘Buy Now’ situation.

Acer shirasawanum ‘Full Moon’ – super-hardy, simply gorgeous and so very nearly in my shopping cart!

And to finish on all-round knock-out foliage colour we can’t leave out phormiums – tough, exotic looking and in an array of marvellous colours – just look at ‘Jester’ (our feature photo) if this doesn’t make you want to get the cocktail shaker out, you must be Laura!

NB For all their horticultural superiority neither Laura nor Elaine could ID this lovely little sweet pea for Laura’s garden visitors – I had to punch it into my phone App to find out what it was!

Lathyrus sylvestris
Problem solved – it’s Lathyrus sylvestris, the narrow-leaved everlasting-pea, if only E and L were a bit more tech savvy.

Here is Louise’s piece on Vitis vinifera ‘Brant’

And here is that cut-price dwarf jacaranda that Laura was on about.

For her plant of the month Louise has also gone for a specimen admired by the HPS visitors. Click on the box below to find out what it was.

More NB If you’d like more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

2 replies on “Don’t leave out the foliage (see what we did there?)”

I agree with you. Foliage is every bit as important as flowers giving colour, form and texture to the garden. The Melianthus covers all those bases plus scented too. I do like ferns and my latest is an evergreen Korean fern.

I agree, you can’t beat a bit of green foliage, it lifts the spirits. But I’m with Caroline, anywhere North of Watford Gap is way too cold for some plants, oop North has limited temperatures and isn’t for the more exotic plants!

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