Perennials provide a spectacular display for many months of the year, but many, unfortunately, only bloom for a relatively short period of time. For a longer-lasting design, select plants for foliage effects as well as for blooms, and combine different shapes and colors for a long season of interest.
Perennials follow the general pattern of most plants, with larger-leaf species tending to prefer shade, and those with small, silver, or downy foliage enjoying sunny sites. Most colorful foliage perennials need some sun to bring out their hues, but a range of variegated plants, such as arums and pulmonarias, do well in the shade. Contrast plants with different features, and use each type in bold groups or swathes for the greatest impact.
Leafy perennials are versatile plants, suitable for gardens of all sizes, with diminutive types squeezing into tiny spaces and dramatic crowd-pleasers, like phormiums, providing excellent container plants for patios. Add to these the mid-sized perennials, which create bold, textured effects when used en masse in larger spaces. There are even tough little plants, including the prettily patterned deadnettle, Lamium maculatum, that will survive the dry shade beneath trees.
Make the most of perennials in a small urban garden by tucking shade lovers, such as hostas, pulmonarias and ferns, beneath a bench, or use them to produce a frill of foliage alongside a pathway. In boggy areas close to a pond or pool, inject drama into a larger garden with the massive leaves of a Gunnera manicata, or use the well-shaped Ligularia and Rodgersia species where space is more restricted. Areas that bask in full sun will provide the perfect home for an edging of furry lambs’ ears (Stachys), swathes of colorful succulents, including purple forms of Sedum telephium, and focal plants such as Melianthus major.
Plants grown for foliage effects come from a wide range of habitats, so check the labels for specific site and soil requirements before you buy. Many, like ferns, make excellent container specimens, but remember to keep perennials in pots well watered and feed them annually in the spring with an all-purpose granular fertilizer to keep the foliage looking lush.
Consider these foliage options for your garden:
- Large leaves: One of the best perennials for large leaves is Bergenia, with its oval, leathery leaves and clusters of pink flowers in early spring.
- Colorful foliage: For the widest variety, opt for heucheras, which thrive in most soil types. Hostas include a good choice for shady sites.
- Swordlike leaves: Sun-loving phormiums are hardy and make exceptional focal plants. Shade-tolerant astelias produce a similar effect.
- Patterns: Brunnera cultivars, and Pulmonaria species, many of which are evergreen, will brighten up shady areas with their patterned foliage.
- Grassy leaves: Ophiopogon species are compact plants with variegated leaves or black grasslike foliage. Libertia is a taller option for beds and borders.
- Fingerlike foliage: Not all euphorbias are perennials, but the striking reddish-purple foliage of Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ makes it one of the best.
- Ferny leaves: Choose an achillea for a mix of fernlike foliage and flowers. Ferns themselves make beautiful specimens for shade.
- Soft, downy foliage: For tactile effects, try downy-leaf lambs’ ears, Stachys byzantina, and the velvety foliage of Verbascum bombyciferum.