Lisa Ellis: It’s all about the foliage

Frequently it’s all about the leaves. Yes, it’s true that a garden designed around foliage can stop you in your tracks. Sure, flowers are important and beautiful, but foliage can be elevated to playing an equal role to flowers, if you allow it. Think big and meaty voluptuous foliage. Or a lighter, delicate more ephemeral look. Or interesting foliage that is reminiscent of sea coral. And the trick to making great foliage look even greater is by placing contrasting and complementary foliage beside it.



It’s about getting the scale of the planting right in relation to its foliage shape and size and the garden space in question. How much time should my eye linger on that bed or on that plant or that drift? One could say that the same consideration may be given to writing music to that of planning a plant palette.

In my opinion, it’s also a great idea to use a ‘bronzer’ to change the mood in a garden. And when I say that I don’t mean cosmetics.  I’m talking about using plants that bring definition and glow, and that can be achieved through textural and tonal contrast. Alone, one plant may be a sound performer but brought beside another, it suddenly comes alive. It’s about the sum of the parts adding up to more than the single plant. In short, the foliage of one plant can be amplified a great deal by bringing in another contrasting plant.


Recently we recently planted out a Melbourne balcony using dwarf pines underplanted with Stachys (lambs ears) and Cerastium tomentosum (Snow in Summer). Spiky and soft. Dark green and soft grey. Simple but oh so striking. Then there is another garden where we have partnered Senecio petasites beside the heavenly Asparagus myriocladus. Velvety soft green and ostensibly prickly and delicate at the same time.


Another wonderful example is the striking teal phyllodes of Acacia aphylla contrasting with a concerted clump of apple green Aeonium arboreum. The beefy foliage of Aspidstra elatior has proven many times over to be a wonderful partner to the retro-leafed Fatsia papyrifera or Fatsia japonica.

Dare you cast your mind back to the eighties when florists were mixing Gypsophila in their rose bouquets. Even though this combination was flogged to death and sure, this was about flowers, it was the texture more than anything that made this appealing at the time. This compositional contrast but in foliage texture rather than flowers can make a great garden a truly superb one.

At the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show this year we were asked a thousand times what the plants were around our water feature. The more whimsical effect of the Ceratostigma willmottianum with its small leaves and dark stems gave more definition and drama to the Buxus sempervirens spheres and the dark rounded leathery leaves of Rhaphiolepis ‘Spring Pearl’. One plant wove into the next creating an effect of lightness and heaviness. Upper mid green tones and dark green tones.


I remember reading years ago that the human eye can detect a great deal more shades of green than any other colour. Landscape Designers will often contemplate a plant palette and look at the different green hues, mixing dark greens and mid greens. Introducing blue greens to olive greens and hooker greens. Subtleties are important and if you’re curious to think more about this just google shades of green on Wikipedia.

Yes, foliage can be a most obliging hero if you allow it.

Years ago I remember gardening for a well spoken Melbourne matriarch who spent a great deal of time visiting and reading about gardens. One day she bustled around the corner of the house in her cream cashmere and exclaimed loudly in delight at the foliage…

Oh Lord, baby Jesus wept!

Ergo, the power of a new and startlingly beautiful combination of plants being brought together.

Some foliage plants are elegant in a more quiet fashion. These plants don’t necessarily scream out for the spotlight but are more humble in the way they present themselves. In sifting through some photographs taken in the last month I’ve found many plants that jump to mind and these are random inclusions in no particular order.




An Australian native that should be used more often in my opinion, is the heavenly oakleaf Chorilanea quercifolia. We have this plant growing superbly beneath eucalypts and in dry semi shaded spots. I often pick the foliage for vases. Similarly, a simple wall of Parthenocissus henryana or Parthenocissus tricuspidata is a wall worth having.


A mass planting of Geranium maderense (Canary Island geranium) presents leaves that are in turn both extraordinarily delicate and bold at the same time. They are a show stopper in late winter, buoyed by winter rain and occasional sunny days beneath naked deciduous trees under which they grow. The Kelly green foliage of the multi-stemmed Pseudopanax ‘Cyril Watson’ is staggeringly beautiful in every sense of the word as well as being extremely wind tolerant. And if this could inspire a frock, I would be wearing it in a flash.


Another thought is that more people should get over any coniferous prejudices held from recalling those less than savoury plantings of the 70’s and 80’s. I’m thinking about a multi-needled sea of Juniperus conferta or Juniperus taxifolia Lutchuensis; or a single specimen of Pinus thunbergia ‘Yatsabusa’. Or a striking cloud clipped Podocarpus falcatus. Plus they have the added bonus of being super tough. Conifers can be a sculptural standout in the garden. If you’ve ever been to Parc Retiro in Madrid you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.



Variegated foliage is also a wonderful way of reducing heaviness in shade. It’s a way of changing the mood in what might be a dark area of the garden. It can bring lightness and playfulness, and define darker foliage all the more.  Variegated irises, Elderflower, Hostas… the list goes on and on.

LE_foliage_3When planning a garden, ample consideration might be given to combinations of plants that amplify through tone and textural contrast. It’s not about bringing them together because they’re different, but because each looks more special because of their team play.

It is wonderful to behold a landscape where a good deal of considered thinking is invested in beautiful and different foliage combinations. The possibilities are endless and in this game one can never stop learning, and devising new combinations that surprise and delight, even the professionals themselves.

Oh Lord, baby jesus wept indeed.