Garden Designers Roundtable: Foliage, the Thick and Thin of It

In a couple of weeks, as bulbs begin to bloom, perennials re-leaf, and spring arrives in earnest here in central Texas, the floral displays at the nurseries will sing their siren song, and it’ll be all too easy to forget about the structural foliage plants that anchor and sustain the garden all year round. So stop your ears with wax to block that siren song for a moment, and let’s examine how big, bold foliage works in our hot-zone gardens not only in winter, when flowering plants are dormant, but in summer, when the garden is a riot of color.

Austin gardeners have long embraced the native-plant and xeriscape movements for ecological and economic reasons. Native and adapted plants thrive despite our variable weather patterns and extremely hot, often dry summers, which sap plants from more temperate regions. Many of our dependable, xeric, sun-lovers—salvia, penstemon, skullcap, zexmenia, Mexican oregano, rosemary, copper canyon daisy, dalea, flame acanthus, cuphea, damianita, to name a few—sport masses of tiny leaves, which nature engineered to help hot-zone plants reduce water loss through transpiration.

Planting these tough beauties in a sunny bed can give you waves of color through the warm months. But it can also look busy and messy—not to mention flat and bare in winter—leaving you with the feeling that something important is missing. That something is strong foliage structure to contrast with all those fine-textured leaves.

The woody lilies, like agave and yucca, and certain cacti, like prickly pear (Opuntia) are a natural source of wide-leaf, architectural foliage for us here in central Texas. In a climate where broad leaves generally indicate that a plant must have some shade, the wide blades, swords, and paddles of succulent and cacti foliage thrive in full sun and act as focal points amid the fine texture of flowering perennials.

As with our xeric perennials, the foliage of ornamental grasses is fine textured too. Combine thin-leaved grasses with wide-leaved agaves, and magic happens!

Or perhaps you have a wetter site or a spot near the hose that favors big-leaved tropicals like cannas or variegated shell ginger. Contrast them with the thin leaves of ornamental grasses in the same color family, and ka-pow!—a great foliage combination.

Here bronze cannas edge into a shady bed of small-leaved plants under live oaks.

If you have shade, the same principle applies: contrast wide and narrow leaves. Wide leaves for part-shade in central Texas include ‘Macho Mocha’ mangave (above), sago palm, Texas dwarf palmetto, shell ginger, softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia), and even some agaves like ‘Whale’s Tongue’ (Agave ovatifolia). For shade, cast-iron plant (Aspidistra), Japanese aralia, and Acanthus mollis offer big-leaf contrast with thin-leaf monkey grass (Liriope) and sedge and lacy ferns.

Playing with the contrast of wide and thin leaves yields so many pleasing combinations and is especially important in our hot climate, where tiny leaves tend to predominate. So when you’re at the nursery this spring, oohing and ahhing over flowering beauties with nondescript foliage, make room in your wagon for some broad-leaved, structural plants too. Your garden will be all the more beautiful for it.

This is my contribution to the topic of Foliage for Garden Designers Roundtable, a panel of U.S. and British landscape and garden designers who blog in concert on a monthly basis. Please visit the other designers on the Roundtable who are blogging about foliage today too:

Andrew Keys at Garden Smackdown: Boston, MA
Christina Salwitz at Personal Garden Coach: Renton, WA
Debbie Roberts at Garden of Possibilities: Stamford, CT
Ivette Soler at The Germinatrix: Los Angeles, CA
Jocelyn Chilvers at The Art Garden: Denver, CO
Rebecca Sweet at Gossip in the Garden: Los Altos, CA
Shirley Bovshow at Eden Makers: Los Angeles, CA

All material © 2006-2010 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

27 Responses

  1. Darla says:

    Don’t you just give the gardener something to ponder? Wonderful ideas and photos here…I’ll certainly leave room in my wagon for some beautiful wide leaf plants….and the grasses look spectacular too.

    It’s easy to forget about buying ornamental grasses, which typically peak in fall, at this time of year, but they’re often on sale in late winter and spring, at least in independent nurseries here in Austin. It’s a good time of year to buy. —Pam

  2. Diana says:

    Great post – with lovely contrasting plants, textures and foliage. Gives others not in Austin a nice sense of how we can garden here and have such a broad range of choices in spite of our heat.

    We DO have a broad range of plant choices, Diana, which makes gardening here so much fun, despite our infernal heat. :-) —Pam

  3. I’m in love with those dark Cannas….burgundy is my very favorite color! I love the advice you’re giving, also – very helpful for people once Spring Fever hits and there’s so many choices at the nursery!

    Thanks, Rebecca. Now I’ll just have to try hard to follow my own advice and not get (quite) so caught up in spring fever. —Pam

  4. There are so many textures and colors to choose from, in foliage. You’re right, that we often pack our wagons with blooming plants. But, a garden with only foliage, can be very appealing

    It really can, Linda, and not just in shade but sun too. —Pam

  5. Andrew says:

    Truly, I think Agaves should be the poster children for good foliage. I love them so… I especially love the silver ones here back by a grass.

    There are a few species that will grow here if given perfect drainage (basically gravel), but I’m coming to terms with the fact that I may just not have the right context for them. I did just snag a couple Agave parryi I’m planning on using as container subjects. Here’s hoping that works well.

    Excellent post!

    I know what you mean about questioning the context for certain plants that are particularly regionally identified. However, I think anyone who loves agaves should grow at least one or two in containers. They work beautifully as container plants—it solves the drainage problem and they can be brought indoors in cold climates—and they make fantastic focal points. Go for it, Andrew! —Pam

  6. Pam, you are right on with your advice about using bold foliage in xeric plantings (and in general) to keep gardens dynamic. You are so lucky to have a nice variety of agaves and cacti there in Texas!

    Hi, Jocelyn. Some of Austin’s agaves really suffered during our recent record low temperatures, but generally they do very well here. Some people shy away from them because of the spikes, but the growing availability of soft-leaved mangaves, squid agaves, and the like give us more options. —Pam

  7. Pam,
    Great examples of foliage stars in the garden. I appreciate the tip on contrasting large bold leaves like the striped agave with a delicate plant at it’s feet.
    Texas is hot just like Los Angeles. I think you are more humid though? Is this true?

    Shirley Bovshow
    Garden World Report Show

    Because the prevailing winds in summer sweep up from the Gulf of Mexico, it can be very humid here, even when there’s no rain. Just one more of the quirks of central Texas weather! —Pam

  8. Germi says:

    Thick and Thin – what a great way to sum up a way to contrast foliage texture! You are SO right; seeing a grass cuddled up next to an agave is SO satisfying. The ‘Thick&Thin’ holds true all over the garden! It’s a perfect mantra to keep in mind to avoid that mushy feeling in a garden. PROPS! I know it’s going to be running through my mind – you phrase coiner!
    Wonderful post, and as usual, photos are swoonworthy…

    Thanks, Germi. I realized later that I led with flowers on a foliage-themed post. However, since my point was about contrasting our thin-leaved flowering perennials with big, bold, architectural foliage plants, I hope it worked. Man, it was hard to narrow down such a broad topic as foliage into something bite-sized for a single post! —Pam

  9. Denise says:

    Lovin’ this roundtable on foliage!

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the rounds, Denise. —Pam

  10. Debbie says:


    Ka-pow is right! I enjoyed your thin vs. thick take on foliage. While all the photos are beautiful, I found the one of the agave and thin-leaved grass especially so.

    I photographed that combo at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Debbie. It wowed me too. —Pam

  11. Pam, I think I am going to stand outside the local nurseries this spring and hand out earplugs! Your advice is spot on, and more people should heed. I am amazed at the contrast between the Agave and the grasses, that is truly stunning. I don’t know what the blue flower is in the last photo, but it there is something tantalizing about it with the variegated Agave. Great post!

    Thanks, Scott. The blue flower in the last picture is Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), which is an herbaceous perennial for us here in Austin but would be an annual for you in New England. It comes into full glory in autumn and looks smashing with big, bold agaves and ornamental grasses. —Pam

  12. Eliza says:

    Your xeric suggestions are just in time for my spring planning. We’ve had so much rain lately that I’d almost forgotten the likelihood of drought! Time to sketch out some new ideas…

    There is so much extreme weather these days that’s hard to know what to plan for, isn’t it? But xeric plants can perform well even in a rainy year so long as they have good drainage, either through gritty soil or planting on a slope, etc. Happy plant shopping, Eliza. —Pam

  13. Nancy Bond says:

    What gorgeous combinations — I really like the contrast of those light and dark ornamental grasses.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the pics, Nancy. —Pam

  14. Beautiful ideas! Great eye and great thoughts.

    Thanks, Linda. You know I try to squeeze in agave propaganda whenever possible. ;-) —Pam

  15. The fine foliage plants are my favorite – it breaks my heart that their invasive nature makes pennisetum and Mexican Feather Grass bad choices in a lot of situations.

    As always, your photos inspire!

    We have a lengthy invasive-plant list here in Austin too, Susan. Luckily, aside from pampas grass, ornamental grasses don’t generally appear on it. I would be very sad to lose Mexican feathergrass as a responsible choice, as Californians have. —Pam

  16. Pam, I love your design style! Very inspiring. You use many techniques with plants that I am trying to be more consistent with, like mass planting and then one bold statement plant to contrast. Do the Canna’s colonize naturally or is that a mass planting?

    Cannas will spread readily (but not invasively) here if given enough water. The first photo with cannas was actually taken in Pennsylvania, at Chanticleer; the second one on a garden tour in Austin, and I expect it was a mass planting. —Pam

  17. Layanee says:

    Great ideas for impacting space. Who needs flowers when foliage is so stunning. You know I just love your agaves.

    I know, Layanee. I want everyone to have at least one! —Pam

  18. Jenny says:

    You certainly have a way of combining plants for texture and form. I will certainly take your ideas along to the garden store this spring. We are beginning to see a greater selection of architectural plants from which to choose. Timely post.

    Thanks, Jenny. You are right that our nurseries are carrying ever more options for architectural plants. Some of these may not ultimately prove freeze-hardy for us, but many seem to grow well here. —Pam

  19. Jean says:

    Very good advice. I especially like the combo of agaves and grasses.

    Me too, Jean. The form is similar, but the texture is completely different, and of course grasses bend and sway while agaves are stiff-armed—a cool contrast. —Pam

  20. melanie says:

    I love looking at the photos from all you warm climate gardeners, such exotic foliage. The design principles remain the same up here in my cold climate garden it’s just the plant are different.

    Yes, that’s true, Melanie. I hope the warm-climate garden blogs can keep you warm until spring arrives in a glorious explosion of leaf and color in your own region. —Pam

  21. Nothing short of spectacular, Pam ! I think its great that Austin gardeners use xeriscaping and native plants in their landscapes. While in Florida I saw some homes and landscapes that looked Midwestern and appeared so out of place.

    Isn’t it sad that they throw away the beauty of their own region for a far-away, inappropriate aesthetic? But I think that happens in areas with large numbers of new residents, who aren’t familiar with the local plant palette, and so they do what they’re familiar with. —Pam

  22. karen says:

    Absolutely beautiful, Pam. Your use of contrasting foliage forms, texture and color are so inspiring!

    Thanks, Karen! —Pam

  23. I love this topic! I find myself just starring at your 6th photo of the cannas, grass, and euphorbia…PERFECT! The colors, the texture…wow.

    That was a perfect planting scheme from a perfectly gorgeous and inspiring garden: Chanticleer, in Pennsylvania. If it’s not on your list of places to see, Loree, you need to add it. So much great foliage, creativity, and humor there, plus there’s even a southwestern-style hillside. You can find my post about it on my sidebar, under Gardens I’ve Visited. —Pam

  24. Chookie says:

    So find similar plant forms or colours, but have contrasting foliage textures, then?

    I think I see what the problem in my garden is: too many fine-leaved plants all at once.

    Strategically place some broad-leaved, structural plants amid your fine-leaved ones, Chookie, and it’ll bring your compositions to life and give them focus. But it’s easy to overdo it, so use structural plants sparingly.

    Contrasting plant form is also an excellent design tool. Combine a vertical, upright form with a soft, rounded one. Mix a star shaped agave with a billowy, mounding perennial. As for color, entire books have been written on that subject, and it really comes down to personal preference. Some people like the serenity of using all one color family and mixing things up with form and texture. Others like the dynamic of using contrasting colors. But no matter what you do with color, it’s important to mix leaf texture and form for an interesting, eye-catching garden. —Pam

  25. I will have to go visit the east coast more northern designers in the roundtable for sure. Using evergreen foliage for structure in the winter garden is not a new idea for me. I have been planting and pondering with that in mind since I got here. I do need to look more at bark and form to add to the evergreen component. This winter has just driven that point home in a major way.

    You have certainly had a harsh winter on your North Carolina mountain, Christopher. I bet you’ll have a lot of good evergreen options for your garden. I already envy you the conifers you’ll be able to grow. —Pam

  26. I love the juxtaposition of textures you’ve used! I’ve bookmarked this page to reference later on and especially like the usage of black cannas, agaves and grasses!

    I’m glad you enjoyed the pictures, RG. I find them inspirational too. —Pam

  27. Just discovered your blog!

    I’ve never been to Texas; you have so many contrasting yet complimentary foliage textures! I especially LOVE your agave’s and yucca’s.

    Howdy! And thank you for visiting, Aubree. —Pam