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Focus on Foliage

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By Anno Torr

We, gardeners, are cheerfully seduced by flowers, whether with impulsive buys of plants already in bloom, or more controlled buys of plants to fit a specific design plan. In fact, most admit to planning a design around colour.

But even longest-lasting flower shows are temporary; foliage displays, on the other hand, particularly of evergreen species, are permanent. Trees and shrubs make up the long-term greenery of your garden providing the structure, form, line and natural elegance that pull together the various components of the garden into a cohesive whole. And looking at the plant’s qualities when it is out of flower is where should begin our designs. Flowers are crucial of course, providing pollen and nectar for birds and insects, but too often we forget about including the larger shrubs that are just as important to animal life cycles. Focusing on building your structure with foliage can help to change that. Small gardens, in particular, benefit from building up a layered framework of foliage rather than a single-minded focus on flowers.

Most sections of the garden will need a green backdrop; larger species to flesh out the garden boundaries and as components of the internal framework, and smaller shrubs for lower-growing screens, to add height in a sunny bed, or as part of a shrubbery. 

The shrubs listed here, from small to large shrubs as well as a few small trees hold their shape through the year.

The Choice hierarchy:

  • Purpose: what do you want the plant to do? Is it to provide a privacy screen or windbreak, as an ornamental hedge or boundary screen, or to section off the garden into secluded areas, or build habitat areas like thickets, that offer food and shelter to animals?

  • Evergreen or deciduous: do you need sun in winter or foliage year-round? Keep wildlife needs in mind.

  • Existing: Look at what you already have, where you need to make changes or improve with new additions. Add species for contrast or to highlight an area or display. Close your eyes; when you open them, is your first impression one of a melding of bland green before your eyes focus once again on colour elements? Would large leaves or grey leaves add punch?

  • Special: Do you need a focal point, a ‘star-performer’, something decorative or with a strong outline?

  • Bonus elements: fruit and flowers provide functional support for local animals and add to the overall diversity of the garden. While form and good looks are the main characteristics, the bonus elements of fruit and flowers provide functional support for local animals and add to the overall diversity of the garden.

  • Glossy leaves

  • Deciduous skeleton

  • Spiky

  • Small leaves

  • Colour changes

  • Bi-coloured Leaves

  • Tightly packed, multi-stemmed shrubs

  • Ground level foliage

  • High impact shrubs with attractive leaf colour, strong form/ structure

The background greenery – trees and shrubs along the boundary, for example – affects how the rest of the garden is displayed – and comes in a variety of colour shades, combinations, leaf size, shape and texture, and, important in small gardens, how much space they fill. And this background offsets the short-term flowers that flash and fade through the year like Christmas tree lights.


Colour and shape: Look at leaf colour through the year; new spring growth can be red or lime green, or copper and russets through autumn. Large leaves appear closer and take up space as they are more noticeable from afar. In high wind areas, these should be avoided as wind shreds large, soft leaves.


Certain micro-climates will suggest a leaf type: narrow needle-like leaves are common in areas that experience hot, dry summers as the reduced leaf surface reduces water lost through transpiration. Blue, grey, silver leaves reflect heat and are common in groundcovers that spread over hot surfaces.  

Shady areas commonly have shrubs with large, dark green leaves that are adapted to absorb light for photosynthesis.

Texture provides interest from a distance as well as from close-up; large leaves can be more appealing from far off than small ones, and those that invite you to touch and smell, like satin or rough leaves, scalloped margins and a minty scent, should be placed within arm’s reach.


If you need to trim the shrub frequently, choose those with small leaves and multi-stems as they look neat soon after a prune compared with those with large leaves and fewer stems.


Our list of species sorted in the categories listed below is too extensive to include here, so, please do download our article PDF for your files.



  • Grey leaves

  • Small needle-like leaves

  • Medium-sized leaves – tough, blue/ green

  • Furry Texture

  • Large leaves

  • Shade

  • Stiff leaves

  • Feathery or weeping form

  • Bright green leaves

  • Dark green

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