form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care

We’ve got the blues…and they really make those autumn colors sing


When most of us envision autumn colors, they are invariably the hot hues uncovered by waning chlorophyll production: the reds, oranges and yellows of the anthocyanins, carotenoids and xanthophylls.  These, indeed, are the archetypal autumnal hues from both art and life that precede the descent into drab winter that befalls many climates.  However, if you want to get the biggest burst of fall color in your garden, the deepest, fieriest show that the turning leaves can stage, plant something blue to showcase the heat.

Include blue in your planning for a colorful autumn garden

Blue and orange are color wheel opposites, and opposing hues complement each other in dramatic but satisfying ways.  Red and green; purple and yellow; blue and orange, as we move around the wheel, are classic combinations that gardeners put to good effect when designing perennial borders.  Generally composed of one ‘hot’ and one ‘cold’ color, these combinations are pleasing but also provide ‘oomph’.

color wheel plants, color wheel flowers, color wheel gardens, color wheel leaves

The color wheel is a must-have tool for garden planning

Oddly, when designing foliage gardens, this simple trick of the color wheel is overlooked.  Gardeners seeking an autumn show plant deciduous selections that admittedly turn brilliant colors when the days shorten: Viburnums, Fothergillas, maples, smoke bushes, etc., all of which have stunning fall color.  However, their color is significantly enriched when their garden companions are blue-hued evergreens.  (There are great blue-hued deciduous foliage plants, too, but they turn color in fall along with the rest of the deciduous gang, so they don’t provide contrast in autumn.)

What are some choice candidates for best blue-leaved evergreen in a supporting role?  There are conifers, broad-leaved evergreens, grasses and succulents available; what you choose will depend on your zone, your space and your taste.

Physocarpus ‘Coppertina’ and Picea engelmannii ‘Blue Harbor’

We’ll start with the all-around winner: blue spruces.  They can be grown in most of the U.S., are available in dwarf varieties, come in weeping and upright forms to suit different garden requirements and moods and many have needles the color of the blue in a box of crayons.  This is not ‘blue’ as envisioned by a hybridizer who sees the world through wishful rose (er, blue) colored glasses.  These needles are BLUE!  Try one out against a fiery viburnum and see what we mean.  Which to plant?  The classic Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) gets quite large and has the dubious distinction of outgrowing more locations than perhaps any other suburban landscape plant in American history.  So, go with a dwarf variety such as ‘Lucretia’ or ‘Fat Albert’, or try another species, such as P. engelmanii, P. glauca or P. abies, all of which have dwarf varieties that work better in most gardens than the straight species.

Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’ with Picea pungens ‘Thomsens’ and Euphorbia ‘Portuguese Velvet”

Staying in the conifer world, there is almost nothing as blue from a distance as an Arizona cypress (Cupressus glabra), var ‘Blue Ice’.  This one only works if you have the space for it, as it will grow to about 30’, but if you do, try it next to a smoke bush like Cotinus ‘Grace’.  She never looked so stunning as she does in full fall color, with ‘Blue Ice’ backing her up.

There are many other blue-needled conifers to suit almost any size, shape, texture and climatic zone – a few choice varieties are Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Curly Tops’, Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca pendula’ and many of the Abies concolor varieties.

Acer palmatum ‘Pung kil’, Hebes pimeloides ‘Quicksilver’ and Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca pendula”

If conifers are not your cup of compost tea and you live in zones 8-10, try Hebe pimeleoides ‘Quicksilver’.  This low-growing, well-behaved hebe is silvery blue and makes a great skirt around a deciduous tree as in the photo above.  Podocarpus ‘Monmal’, (also sold as ‘Icee Blue’), is another choice blue shrub (it’s a conifer, but doesn’t look like one!)  Its broad evergreen leaves mimic flattened needles and it is reliably dusty blue year-round, doing its most important job in autumn when it moves from supernumerary to supporting role.

Acer campestre ‘compacta’ with Helictotrichon sempervirens; Berberis thunbergii and Nyssa sylvatica turning colors in the background

Also for warmer zones are the evergreen ornamental grasses Helictotrichon and Festuca; both have true-blue color and work well with deciduous shrubs such as Fothergilla and Spirea. Both grasses provide wonderful structural and textural contrast with the autumnal palette.

The list goes on, from Agaves like ‘Blue Haze’ to Eucalyptus (charming dwarf varieties such as ‘Moon Lagoon’, not the awful, messy behemoths), and the blue that you choose depends on your own garden’s particulars and your own taste.  There are blue groundcovers (junipers, mostly, and don’t turn up your nose – there are some lovely varieties, you just need to overcome your prejudices and seek them out), grasses, shrubs and trees, so you really have no excuse.

So if you’re looking to add some intensity to next year’s autumn garden, get the blues.  You’ll have the added benefit that since they are evergreen, they’ll continue to add interest to your garden long after the deciduous leaves have dropped.

Note to our subscribers: we are working on setting up plant lists and a photo gallery that are not part of the main blog post.  We hope to have them up and running within the next couple of months, and we’ll try to make them retroactive.  Thanks!

Copyright 2011 by Form and Foliage

27 thoughts on “We’ve got the blues…and they really make those autumn colors sing

  1. Brilliant idea to include the color wheel. Your photos look like they were painted to illustrate your point–but I know they’re real! Beautiful combinations.

  2. Oh I am inspired! I could crawl into the photo and curl up on that bench to admire the bounty of color. Would make a beautiful painting, but nothing beats the real thing. Thank you.

    • Tricia you are most welcome. We are lucky in this part of the world to have this kind of color in our winter gardens. My garden is actually much more colorful in winter than it is in summer, due to the incredible range of foliage colors.
      Sara and Jan

  3. Each gorgeous photo and accompanying commentary lined up nicely on a page for easy viewing. The statement of color principals helped cement the ideas in my mind. Congratulations on a very finished and fun presentation!

    • Thanks, Shanna! Praise from you on the subject of color is praise indeed. Like so many things in life, it is worth going back to basic principles occasionally to regain focus and get new ideas.
      Sara and Jan

  4. Thanks so much. I am taking notes and researching vendors.

  5. Love your suggestions! …thanks.
    Monet had fun with colors too: his pastel blooms were all planted where the sun rose, and his vibrant colors were on the side of the garden where the sun set.

  6. It’s always particularly helpful and inspiring to prove your written points with pictures. No one can argue with how stunning and interesting your garden looks. I’m a believer in your gardening philosophy.

    • Thanks very much for your note! We believe that a garden doesn’t have to languish in winter, and admittedly in Northern California the winter temps are more bearable than in many of the Country’s other zones. But these principles should work all over.
      Sara and Jan

  7. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

  8. So great to see another Norcal garden blog..I’ve linked you on mine.Lovely photos …

  9. Great point well made!
    Love your foliar combos!
    Have a great festive season.

  10. The bench photo looks like an “Other World” where some ethereal figure ought to be floating through. It could be the cover on a dreamy fantasy novel. I may suggest it to a couple of writer friends!

  11. Great point about contrasting blues and vibrant oranges and reds. While our plant palette in Central Texas is very different from yours (thanks to months of intense summer heat, drought, and, yes, winter freezes), we can and do grow lots of beautiful blues and silvers. In fact, ‘Blue Ice’ Arizona cypress is one of my personal faves. I like combining it with the rusty golds of Miscanthus ‘Adagio’ (which is perhaps invasive for you in CA, but not here). Now that I think about it, it would look fab with flameleaf sumac, a native with brilliant red foliage in fall.

  12. In El Paso it seems that these tones are most often seen on Palmers agaves. I love the way these look and am working on my patio garden to add some of this. Nice Blog and very good and timely concept.

    • Hi Pam!
      Thanks for your comment. It is hard to find real blue in the landscape unless you delve into the conifer world, where blue abounds. The agaves are a notable exception – some of them are as blue as a blue crayon! We bet that they work beautifully in SW gardens. Great structure on them, too – we consider agaves to be quintessential ‘form and foliage’ plants. One prejudice – or at least habit – that we are trying to overcome with agaves is to get gardeners to use them interplanted with non-succulents. They can work very well combined with other types of plants. If you discover some good companion plants for your area, let us know!
      Sara and Jan

  13. Pingback: Color Scheming…using color theory to create harmonious foliage combinations « form and foliage

  14. Beautiful photos. Love your color combinations. Don’t forget the blues of the sky and the greens of leaves that are almost always present and go beautifully together.
    I am not an artist but have a scientific background and scientifically the complimentary colors as we find out using lcd displays, inkjet printers and photoshop are:
    Blue – Yellow
    Cyan – Red
    Green – Magenta
    This opens up more possibilities.

    • Thanks Steve!
      According to color theory, complementary colors are those that are ‘opposites’, or across the color wheel from each other, such as red/green or orange/blue or yellow/purple. However also according to color theory, your pairs are more like 2/3 of ‘triadic’ colors – those that are spaced evenly around the wheel. Many many color combinations work; the key to know what mood you are trying to achieve. The point that you make about the sky and the leaves is spot on! It’s one of the reasons that we love foliage gardens – there is always a lot of green to soothe the eye. Thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking comment!
      Jan and Sara

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