form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care

Introducing Form and Foliage


Welcome to a design concept that produces gardens rich in color, texture, form, and even scent – without relying on flowers! If we add that gardens so designed provide interest 365 days of the year with minimal care, doesn’t it get even better?  We invite you to look beyond flowers to the joys of form and foliage.

Late November Greens and Browns

Most gardeners focus on flowers and the majority of plants in most gardens are herbaceous perennials. Structure is often sacrificed for mass drifts of color, a legacy of English garden designers such as Gertrude Jekyll.  Most gardens languish in winter, as too little attention is paid to year-round interest.

Rich foliage colors in autumn

Most nurseries, alas, are enablers of this sad state of affairs.  Nurseries have the most stock in spring and early summer and most people buy plants when they are in bloom.  Gardeners are particularly susceptible to impulse purchases in spring after being cooped up all winter.  The result is that many gardens look their best in spring and summer with little fall or winter appeal.

Color on a foggy winter morning

In addition to having a long off-season, flowering perennials require at minimum an annual shearing to refresh and clear out the previous year’s growth.  Many should be cut back several times during the growing season to look their best.  That’s a lot of work and a lot of debris.

This should give you a new idea about junipers! J. horizontals ‘Blue Chip’, although it looks more like starfish.

If you’re tired of your garden’s lack of structure, lack of year-round interest and just plain tired of doing all that work, change your focus:

  • Focus on plants with year-round (or at least 3 season) appeal
  • Choose plants as much for form and structure as for color
  • Choose at least half your plants for fall or winter interest
  • Focus on plants whose cultural requirements are minimal

Blue brings out the fall colors

As our photographs depict, this approach does not mean giving up the color and textural variety that we love.  It just means that we can appreciate our gardens more fully through the seasons, and spend more time enjoying them instead of being enslaved by them.

Copyright 2011 by Form and Foliage

22 thoughts on “Introducing Form and Foliage

  1. Wonderful idea….can’t wait to begin! Jan’s photography is sensational. Thanks.

    • What a great idea! I am hoping that the Northeast gardens will get some attention as well as glorious California.

    • Thanks Ann and Felice!
      We will try to make this as applicable to all gardens as we can. We have a bit more flexibility in Northern California than in the Northeast, but the concepts are universal.
      Sara and Jan

  2. Great idea, I too am very interested
    In photography, esp. Garden& floral subjects
    I am gradually adding more winter intrest
    To my garden& already subscribe to
    Garden Design mag. One of my favorites
    Looking forward to seeing you’r garden
    In it ! Happy holidays Nancy. Nygaard–
    Come by to see our Christmas lights, we are on the driving lights tour. N.

  3. Beautiful photography and beautiful color composition of the plantings. Are you inspired by certain artists or are the colors your creation?

    Pretty and pretty it is!


  4. Love this idea! Hi Sara…

  5. Thanks, Bama and Maureen –
    The color combinations are my creation…I have always loved color, going back to the days when I sewed, knitted, crocheted and embroidered. The colors and textures of the threads are similar to the colors and textures of the foliage plants. Jan sees the colors in similar ways, and is particularly sensitive to how the changing light affects their brilliance.
    Sara and Jan

  6. Loved the photos. I am one that gets caught up in the instant color that nurseries provide and do too much spontaneous purchasing. These ideas can give me some longer range planning information. Thanks so much.

    • You are most welcome – it is indeed difficult not to succumb to nursery stock when it is in bloom and our gardens are tired! We’ve learned to go plant shopping in winter, when nurseries are low in stock, it is true, but the owners and managers have lots of time and can help guide us to plants that provide more year-round interest. Often then we can also put in orders for spring delivery for plants that they might not have stocked otherwise. Good luck – it’s a process!
      Jan and Sara

  7. I’m on board in my Austin, Texas, garden! Great to see a new blog focusing on a theme that’s near and dear to my heart as well. I hope you’ll join me each month on the 16th (the day after Garden Bloggers Bloom Day) for Foliage Follow-Up. It’s a monthly celebration of great foliage that carries the garden: Meantime, I look forward to following your posts about your beautiful garden.

    • Pam – great idea, and we’ll look for Foliage Follow-up! We’d love to hear some more ideas of what evergreen foliage plants work in your area. Obviously some crossover, such as ‘Blue Ice’ and we grow M. ‘Adagio’, as well. Love the idea of the Sumac with the ‘Blue Ice’!

  8. Great ideas. Using the old color wheel to balance/accentuate colors. Already going through those nursery catalogs to plan the new property.
    Conifers, Bamboos, Acers, and more for my backdrop and filling in from there. Aiming more towards a year round bee / pollinator garden. Looking into using some Tetradium daniellii and Triadica sebifera, both are heavy nectar trees with interesting flowers and colors.
    Can’t wait to see more.

    • Can’t fool the bees! And we notice that a lot of the plants that are grown for foliage have very insignificant (to us) flowers. However, they must have desirable nectar because they are covered with bees and native pollinators when they are in bloom. Some of the California natives like Rhamnus californica or the Mediterraneans such as rosemary are great examples of ‘form and foliage’ plants that the bees like as much as we do! Those Tetradium and Triadica will be great.

  9. To reply to your reply – evergreen foliage plants that work well in Austin include various species of agave, yucca, sotol, nolina, opuntia, evergreen sumac, Texas mountain laurel, yaupon holly, boxwood, aspidstra, holly fern, loropetalum, pittosporum, bamboo, and more!

  10. Interestingly, Austin is in Zone 8b also! This really shows you how different the conditions within a USDA zone can be. Out here in the West, Sunset Magazine has created 24 zones just in our western states. Elevation, proximity to ocean influence, etc, play such a huge role. You’ve got a long list there and good variety of foliage and texture.

  11. Love your website! I live in Ojai and had my property landscaped 2 years ago and only half look good now. There are microclimates that have more frost than others and our agave look like they melt over winter. I will definitely be taking notes on your gardens. They look beautiful and doable! Thanks!

    • Hi Charmaine – those microclimates can be a killer until you figure them out! The Sunset zones really help, but it even took a while for us to nail down whether we were 14, 15 or 16. With those hills and proximity of the ocean in Ojai you must have real differences on your own property.There are a lot of agaves that are frost hardy, so you can replace the tender ones with tougher varieties if you like. Once you get the idea of a more enduring and durable garden, it becomes easier to pass up the plants that are really just ‘pretty faces’ without the strength of character that will sustain the garden year ’round.

  12. Sara and Jan,
    The photos are ethereal paintings, the descriptions informative and appetite-whetting. Color wheel brilliant. Maybe include it again on occasion so we can see how it fits in with the latest photos in whatever season. You two make me want to change my entire style of gardening! Just beautiful.

    • Thanks, Sandy! Great idea on repeating the color wheel. We do think of color combinations in all seasons, so it makes sense. Today Jan is getting shots of movement (she has a special lens for that) as it is a breezy day and the Chondropetalum, for example, are swirling around gracefully. She makes me see the garden through her eyes and I am now aware of even more beauty and interplay amongst the plantings.

      Sara Malone 909 Mustang Court Petaluma CA 94954 Follow us on Facebook

  13. Form and foliage – what a great concept. I’ve been enjoying your comments on our posts on the various J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. Facebook pages, and look forward to visiting your garden(s) one day. Keep up the great work on your blog. I’ve enjoyed catching up, and will look forward to future posts.

    • Thanks, Nancy! We looked up J. Frank Schmidt when we heard such good things about their cultural practices from our arborist. So many trees are grown so poorly that they don’t get a good start in life and really don’t stand a chance. It’s so important to get trees started right, so glad to see that you all do such a good job. You’re welcome to visit if you’re down this way!
      Sara and Jan

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