form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


The Color Purple


smoke bush

Picea pungens ‘Lucretia’ with Berberis wilsoniae and Cotinus x ‘Grace’

In spring the go-to colors are pastels, and the foliage garden certainly has its share of baby blues and soft yellows. However, they often share the garden space with deep, grown-up purple, which contrasts richly with the softer hues. Colorado blue spruce cultivars (Picea pungens cv.) are the quintessential powder blue foliage plants. When paired with other pastels, they have a demure persona, belying the strength inherent in their tough, spiky needles. Around purple, however, the blue acquires a steely note.


Picea pungens ‘Lucretia’ against Cotinus x ‘Grace’ foliage

Purple works well as a background color, especially if you want the background to be, well, in back. Lighter colors draw the eye, darker ones recede. A purple background allows the plants in front to claim the attention.


Eucalyptus pulverulenta ‘Baby Blue’ against the purply Cotinus x ‘Grace’

The Eucalyptus in the shot above is about as pastel as it gets, yet takes on a more sophisticated mien when backed by smoky Cotinus x ‘Grace’.


The blues and greens  gain prominence when backed by purple

Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ is a lovely, if somewhat awkwardly shaped, small tree. Here it is planted behind a grouping of different shades of blues and greens and serves as a backdrop which adds richness to the scene and disguises its lanky branching.


Picea pungens ‘Stoplight’ and Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’

Succulents are a good place to look for ‘evergreen’ purples; the Mangave above is another great companion for blue spruce. Not only do the colors provide fabulous contrast but the strappy leaves of the Mangave are a wonderful foil for the spruce’s small needles. And in true F&F fashion, these plants do the job all 12 months of the year.


A richly hued combination of purple Sedum, yellow Chamaecyparis and orange-tinged grass


Chaenomeles, Cotinus x ‘Grace’ and Juniperus conferta ‘All Gold’

For a stained glass effect, mix purple with other saturated tones such as the greens and yellows pictured above. Paired with the yellow the purple warms up and creates deep contrast to the other colors.


This Cordyline has ‘burgundy’ in its name but to us it’s a reddish purple

There are many grass-like plants (and even some true grasses) that add purple to the garden. The Cordyline ‘Design-a-Line Burgundy’ in the photo above adds depth and flair to what would otherwise be a colorful but flat combination, and, like the Libertia peregrinans (the orange grass) and the blue spruce and holly, holds its leaves all year. Many Phormium come in shades of purple and for those that don’t mind the maintenance, there are several Pennisetum cultivars in deep purple tones.


Leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’, Cotinus x ‘Gracel and Cordyline ‘Design-a-Line-Burgundy’ repeat the purple notes

Colors work best when they are not isolated; don’t hesitate to echo the tones throughout the garden. If you look carefully at the above photo you will also see a bit of purple in the far back about 3/4 of the way across the photo, as well as some purple tones on the plant in the immediate middle front.


Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ is really dark purple

Apparently the colors ‘Blue’ and ‘Black’ sell better than the color purple. There are many plants sold as blue or black that are really purple, such as the Sambucus (elderberry) above. Remember, when selecting your plants, go by what the foliage looks like, not what the label promises. This Sambucus is deep wine-purple, and can be grown as a large shrub or limed up to make a small tree.


Picea pungens ‘Fastigata’ and Coprosma ‘Plum Hussey’

Purple gets more subtle in plants with two-toned leaves like the ‘Plum Hussey’ mirror plant. This cultivar of the New Zealand Coprosma leafs out bright green and the older leaves take on purple-tinged edges until the cold weather comes and drenches them in a deep, plummy coat. You can see Cotinus x ‘Grace’ in the background, striking, as befitting,  a grace note. We can’t seem to stop pairing our purples with light blue, can we?


The Cordyline in back and the beech in front stake their claim for purple in this mixed foliage garden

The genus Fagus, or beech, is another good place to go purple-hunting. In the shot above the tones of the large Cordyline in the back are picked up and carried forward by the glossy purple beech. The Yucca ‘Blue Boy’ (really purple, but that didn’t make for the alliterative name) in the lower right hand corner continues the theme.


Yucca desmetiana ‘Blue Boy’ (not to us, it’s not!)


Fagus sylvatica ‘Rohanii’ leaves up close

Beech trees (Fagus sp.) are  welcome additions to gardens that are climate-appropriate because of not only their beautifully colored and textured leaves–at once both glossy and fuzzy–but also their elegant, silky bark which graces the winter landscape. They do best in spots with ample rainfall but once established will manage fine in even mild Mediterranean climates with little more water than some of the drought-hardy standbys.


Podocarps elongates ‘Monmal’ (Icee Blue) is flanked by Hebe ‘Amy’ for a subtle hint of purple

Purple doesn’t have to be bold or strident; there are many plants with purple leaf edges or undersides, like Hebe ‘Amy’ in the photo above. ‘Amy’ also has purple flowers, but they are ephemeral. The leaves and stems are purple all year long.


Abies x arnoldiana ‘Poulsen’

For real subtlety, treat purple as an ornament, the way that one might wear an amethyst ring or a garnet brooch. The cones on the ‘Poulsen’ fir are luscious, deep purple and decorate the shrub for months in spring and early summer.

Get your purple on!





Strange Bedfellows…or ‘What’s that Succulent Doing Next to that Spruce?’

succulents, conifers

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ has maroon edges that echo the deep hues of the Cotinus x ‘Grace’ on the right and the Acer palmatum ‘Twombly’s Sentinel’ on the left

Succulents seem to be all the rage these days, with specialty nurseries and designers abounding. We admire many of the succulent creations, but never really embraced the ‘total look’, which seemed often to lack scale and suffer from excessive cuteness. When we focused on some of the edgier genera, with larger specimens, such as Agaves, we also realized that we didn’t need to isolate succulents in their own beds and containers, we could incorporate them into the overall garden design.


Agave ‘Blue Glow’ can hold its own beside conifers (in this case Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Girl’, Picea pungens ‘Glauca Procumbens’ and ‘Picea orientalis ‘Golden Start ‘) and other woody foliage plants.


A study in dusty blue: Cedrus deodara 'Prostrate Beauty' and Agave parryi var. huachucensis share the same hue with vastly different structures and textures.

A study in dusty blue: Cedrus deodara ‘Prostrate Beauty’ and Agave parryi var. huachucensis share the same hue, but with vastly different structures and textures.

Foliage gardeners continually must grapple with the fact that most of the interesting foliage plants have small leaves. From the conifers’ needles to shrubs such as Abelia, Berberis and Hebe it is difficult to get away from fine textures. Most of the large-leaved shrubs, such as Rhododendron and Pieris, are denizens of the woodland garden and not happy in sunny gardens without acid soils. Many succulents provide large scale leaves that beautifully contrast with finer foliage.

conifers, succulents

Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’ and Juniperus x media ‘Daub’s Frosted’ share the same yellow and green foliage colors. Pinus strobus ‘Mini Twists’ is to the right.


succulents, barberry, manzanita

The same Agave, this time keeping company with Arctostaphlos ‘Emerald Carpet’ and Berberis thunbergii ‘Maria’ (sold as Sunjoy Gold Pillar)

The idea of interplanting succulents with conifers and other foliage plants strikes some as odd if not downright unnatural. To get a taste of how Nature herself does it, visit a forest in Mexico and see Yucca and Agave growing side by side with pines and cypress. We think of Mexico as a succulent haven when in fact Mexico also has more native pine species than any other country. Many of our perceived design rules are products of our own traditions and not necessarily representative of what is possible or, indeed, even plentiful in Nature.


Yucca ‘Tiny Star’ and other succulents with coniferous accompaniment. The conifers echo the yellow in the Yucca and soften its sharp lines.

Succulents come in a vast array of colors although most of the genera with larger species (Yucca, Agave, Aloe, etc) have the most selections in shades of green, blue and yellow. It is not uncommon to find multiple colors with either stripes, such as many Yucca and Agave, or marginal accents in contrasting shades.

conifers, succulents

Aloe striata in a bed of Juniperus procumbens, flanked by golden Chamaecyparis.

Aloe striata has coral leaf margins and in shade, rosettes of broad, flat, bluish-green leaves. The leaves turn ruddy pink in full sun and make for a beautifully two-toned plant. In the photo above, the blue-green of the Aloe is echoed by the juniper, again with a marvelous textural contrast. The Aloe is hardy to only 20 degrees, so in this garden is planted in a container, which may be moved to a protected area when necessary.

Mangave 'Macho Mocha' is one of the few larger succulents with significant maroon coloration.

Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’ is one of the few larger succulents with significant maroon coloration.

There are larger succulents with maroon foliage. Some of our favorites are the Mangaves, thought to be crosses between Agave and Manfreda. ‘Macho Mocha’ is a stunner; it reaches 4-6′ across at maturity and its broad, strappy leaves are liberally peppered with deep, bronzy red.

Mangave 'Chocolate Chip' has distinctively wavy leaves.

Mangave ‘Chocolate Chip’ has distinctively wavy leaves, which contrast nicely with the other foliage.

There are several Mangave cultivars, ranging in size from the large ‘Macho Mocha’ to ‘Blood Spot’, which makes a compact rosette about a foot across. Most Mangave appear to be hardy to between 0-10 degrees, which make them, along with some Agave, among the most cold-tolerant succulents.

conifers, succulents

Aloe polyphylla, with its distinctive spiral leaves, stars in this bed, with Pinus strobus ‘Mini Twists’, Abies pinsapo ‘Horstmann’ and Cryptomeria japonica ‘Knaptonensis’ in the chorus. A string of Echeveria elegans rims the bed.

So what about cultural requirements? How can low-water succulents exist next to conifers and other woody plants, much less green lawn? Something isn’t right, right? Wrong! Firstly, most succulents need more water than is popularly supposed. While they can be classed a ‘low water’ plants, they are certainly not ‘no water’ plants. Those fleshy leaves store water but it needs to be replenished. The only tricky part is understanding what time of year each particular succulent grows, as this is when it needs the most water. Many are spring and summer growers; others, such as many Aloe, grow in winter months.


Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’, which flourishes in very well-drained soil and is slightly frost-tender, is an excellent choice for a container, which can be placed amongst complementary foliage and moved to shelter during the coldest months.

Secondly, many conifers and woody plants can do with less, or at least less frequent, water than many perennials. The fussiest succulents–those that are frost-tender or require extremely well-drained soil–can be planted in containers which both allow for removal to shelter during winter and provide excellent drainage. However, it is perfectly possible to grow succulents near other plants simply by creating a mound made up of 1/2 soil and 1/2 a gritty substance such as lava pebbles. If the succulent is planted high up in such a mixture, it can receive the same amount and frequency of water as the other plants, and it will drain much more quickly.

Most succulents do not like to be cold and wet at the same time, a challenge for those in Mediterranean climates. Mounding with pebbles or judicious use of containers generally works to provide enough drainage for all but the fussiest plants. Planting next to a hardscape that warms quickly in winter sun can also create a more friendly microclimate.

Agave vilmoriana on a mound next to a flagstone patio.

Agave vilmoriana (appropriately called octopus!) on a mound next to a flagstone patio.

Fall is a great time to plant and winter a great time to ponder and plan. So when you are looking for the perfect plant for a particular spot, whether it is next to a spruce or a spirea, consider whether a succulent might fit the bill!

Succulents, conifers, woody foliage plants and grasses make a rich and varied foliage garden.

Succulents, conifers, woody foliage plants and grasses make a rich and varied foliage garden, with a broad range of colors, textures and forms.





The Hit Parade: The Best Foliage Plants, Part I

succulents, foliage plants

Yucca gloriosa var. recurva ‘Walbristar’ (bright star Yucca)

We’ve long intended to provide plant lists for readers, with criteria such as ‘most durable’, ‘best winter interest’, ‘prettiest, etc. However as we begin, after a long hiatus, to to assemble the lists, we find that the easiest one to create is the list of plants that we simply can’t imagine being without. These aren’t the hardiest or the prettiest or the most drought-tolerant, they’re the go-to plants that both do the job and look like they are doing it effortlessly. This list is from the perspective of a long-time San Francisco Bay Area gardener, so may not apply to your situation. However, others’ lists are simply excuses to create your own, so if you don’t have a ‘must have’ list already, this is your chance to begin! We will note up front that all of these selections are more expensive than many other plants of similar look and size. However, they are worth it! Plants that behave well, that do not readily outgrow their spaces, are not susceptible to pathogens or predators and have long lives should cost more. How many cartloads of perennials do you really need every season? Forego one of them and buy a special plant instead.

bright star yucca

‘Walbristar’ glows in the landscape

1. First on our list is Yucca gloriosa var. recurva ‘Walbristar’ (Zone 7-10), quite a mouthful so easier, perhaps, to simply think bright star Yucca. We used to use Phormiums extensively, and gradually got tired of reversions (when those glorious colored or striped leaves return to dull green), growth rates far beyond the promises on the tags and difficult upkeep. One of our favorites had been ‘Golden Ray’, which features yellow and green striped leaves and thrives in full sun. Once we discovered ‘Walbristar’, however, we turned our back on Phormiums and have never looked back! ‘Walbristar’ has both a more refined look and more refined colors, the leaves do not shred and brown and it develops a distinctly rosy tint in the winter:

Yucca 'Walbristar' turns rosy in cold temperatures

Yucca ‘Walbristar’ turns rosy in cold temperatures

It’s drought tolerant, thrives in most soils and needs little to no upkeep. So far all we’ve had to do is to cut off a few spent flower stalks. It’s smaller ‘cousins’ Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ and Yucca gloriosa ‘Tiny Star’ have many of the same attributes with a smaller profile (and ‘Color Guard’ is clump-forming).

conifers, foliage plants, colored foliage

Ginkgo biloba ‘Todd’s Dwarf’

2. Next is our favorite dwarf Ginkgo biloba, ‘Todd’s Dwarf’ (Zone 3-10). Ginkgo are ancient trees that have barely changed over the millennia. Where they have changed, man has been the manipulator, cultivating naturally occurring mutations and interesting chance seedlings and producing numerous garden-sized small trees. The species Ginkgo, albeit slow-growing, attains heights of 70-80 feet, while these petite versions are often under 4′ at 10 years. They have interesting branching and leaf variations although all retain a semblance of the iconic ‘butterfly’ leaf shape. Our favorite is ‘Todd’s Dwarf, due to its full habit ruffled leaves, but there are many others, such as ‘Mariken’, ‘Troll’, ‘Munchkin’, ‘Jade Butterfly’ and ‘Chase Manhattan’. They all turn butter-yellow in autumn and generally drop their leaves all at once, making a glowing carpet. Four of these tough trees survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima, and they can withstand heat, cold, drought and pollution. They are some of the easiest care, low maintenance garden plants.

conifers, evergreen foliage

Cedrus deodara ‘Cream Puff’

3. The lovely deodar cedar ‘Cream Puff’ (Zone 7-11) is one of the best medium-large evergreen shrubs for Bay Area gardens. The soft, green needles are a classic deodara feature, in this cultivar augmented by creamy white new growth that glows in the landscape, especially during the colder months. Deodara come from the middle East, and deal well with our Mediterranean climate. Once established they are drought-tolerant and can take full sun without any burning or scorching.

conifers, cedars

The needles of Cedrus deodara ‘Cream Puff’ are beautiful up close as well

Up close, the needles look like they have been flocked or frosted. ‘Cream Puff’ is slow-growing and can be kept to shrub form, as the one above, by snipping out any leaders that may form.

Agave x 'Blue Glow'

Agave x ‘Blue Glow’

4. We love our succulents, and rather than relegate them to their own beds, we prefer to choose larger varieties and interplant them into the rest of the garden. Agave x ‘Blue Glow’ (Zone 8-11) is our very favorite. In the world of Agave, this counts as a small plant, but as you can see, it holds its own amongst many reasonably large shrubs. ‘Blue Glow’ provides both stunning structure and color and the maroon margins are complemented with maroon-leaved plants such as Berberis, Cotinus or certain succulents. Its water needs are lower than the nearby shrubs, which we take care of by mixing a goodly dose of lava rock into the soil around it and planting it up about 2-3″. It’s on the same irrigation as the rest of the garden. This Agave will ‘pup’, or produce smaller plants around its base. The leaf spines are extremely sharp; if you have young children or dogs it is advisable to snip them off with a scissors. It’s hard to imagine a plant that provides this much oomph with virtually no maintenance.  looks great up close, too:

Agave 'Blue Glow' up close

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ up close

5. Trees never get enough attention on top plant lists, and there are several that we wouldn’t be without. Arbutus ‘Marina’ (Zone 7-9) tops the list for us because it provides all-year interest, incredible bark, glossy evergreen leaves and decorative flowers and fruit. Give it good drainage and a sunny spot and it will flourish. Judicious pruning can result in fabulous shapes and branching.

strawberry tree, interesting bark

The peeling, cinnamon-chartreuse bark of Arbutus ‘Marina’

The ancestry of ‘Marina’ is unknown; it was first observed at a nursery in San Francisco’s Marina District and it is likely a hybrid between two species of Arbutus. ‘Marina’ flowers year-round, with peak bloom in spring and fall, and the fruit persist from yellow immature to red mature fruit, for a very decorative effect. The leaves flush bronze, later maturing to deep green. There is not one part of this tree that is not showy! ‘Marina’ grows slowly but will eventually become a full-sized tree, so site it accordingly.

Arbutus 'Marina'

Evergreen glossy foliage adds texture and interest all year

6. Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ is our favorite variegated evergreen shrub.

holly, variegated shrubs, evergreen shrubs

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’

At a quick glance Osmanthus resembles holly and is commonly called ‘false holly’. There are many lovely green Osmanthus, and we use them extensively, but ‘Goshiki’ (Zones 6-9) is a special cultivar with its leaves flecked with yellow and cream. The new foliage has distinctly rosy-bronzy tones and the entire effect is light, bright and sparkling. We like to use ‘Goshiki’ against dark green conifers, where we get contrast of both color and texture. ‘Goshiki’ grows slowly and while it eventually will attain some size, it can be snipped back easily. Slow growth means that it is much harder for a plant to get out of hand! In this area it benefits from some afternoon shade, but it can be grown from almost full shade to full sun. It is a wonderful way to brighten a dark spot in the garden.


Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ works beautifully in a large container

7. If you like the look of ornamental grasses but hate the mess and upkeep, Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ (Zones 6-9) is your plant. With the fountain-like habit of a large ornamental grass and the no-nonsense low-care attributes of a conifer (which it is!), it is the perfect marriage of style and simplicity. The dark green foliage bronzes in winter, complementing the rusty brown stems. Its mounding, weeping habit is graceful and soft and its pendulous branches move in the breeze. We often purchase special, highly desirable plants and find ourselves walking around the garden, trying this spot or that, never finding quite the right one. We can always find a spot for ‘Whipcord’! It seems to fit in anywhere. ‘Whipcord’ is slow growing but over time will form a 4-5′ shrub that is almost as wide. Easy pruning keeps it much smaller, much longer.

colored foliage

Acer pseudoplatanus (sycamore maple) ‘Esk Sunset’ gets our vote for loveliest tree

8. Acer pseduoplatanus ‘Esk Sunset’ (Zones 5-9) is such a lovely tree that we just can’t imagine being without it. Sure, there are hundreds–maybe thousands–of beautiful Japanese maples, and we love them all, but to some extent they begin to blur into each other after a while. ‘Esk Sunset’ is unique. Even the other pseudoplatanus cultivars don’t match its incredible flair. The leaves are mottled pale salmon and green, and the coloration varies from leaf to leaf.

sycamore maple

The undersides of the leaves of ‘Esk Sunset’ are purple!

And as if that weren’t enough, the undersides of the leaves are purple! When we catch sight of it backlit, we have to stop what we’re doing and just goggle at it. ‘Esk Sunset’ comes from the Esk Valley in New Zealand but some energetic nursery worker decided at some point that ‘Esk’ was short for ‘Eskimo’. Thus, you will usually see this tagged that way. ‘Esk Sunset’ is a slow-growing tree that appreciates some afternoon shade. The largest tree we’ve ever seen was at Buchholz & Buchholz Nursery in Oregon, an in-ground specimen that was about 25′ tall. You really don’t want to be without this one if you can grow it in your Zone.

conifers, California native plants

Pinus jeffreyi ‘Joppi’ – a California native at home in the garden

9. In California, planting natives is all the rage, and what we don’t understand is why that never seems to include the conifers? California has over 50 native conifers and many have garden-worthy cultivars.  Pinus jeffreyi ‘Joppi’ gets our vote for one of the best. It has a short, squat habit with long (up to 8″), deep green bristly needles and resembles some kind of troll-like creature. We half expect it to talk to us when we come near. The specimen in the photo above has not been pruned, but we’re considering borrowing a technique from bonsai and opening up the structure a bit so that we can see the trunk. This will grow slowly to about six feet tall in 10 years, but it can be kept squat by cutting out the central leader. Don’t you want to pet it?


Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia' (golden locust)

Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ (golden locust)

10. We end this entry with a controversial choice: Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’. ‘Frisia’ is a large, fast-growing tree that not all gardens can accommodate. Some say it self-sows almost to the point of invasiveness; we have never found it so here, with our drip irrigation and sumptuous mulching. Others complain about the brittle branches–again, they have never presented a problem for us. We do some pruning to tidy it up but other than that we leave it alone. The key to making this tree work in your garden is having enough space for a large tree, and preferably siting it against a backdrop of darker foliage, such as the redwoods in the photo. Some do regularly prune it hard and use it as a large shrub, but we prefer the graceful canopy and the dappled shade that it creates. The light underneath is golden and bright. ‘Frisia’ only gets more beautiful in autumn, when its chartreuse foliage softens to a creamy golden yellow. It rivals the Ginkgos for its beacon-like effect as the days shorten at year end.


Jan and Sara took a brief hiatus from Form and Foliage in the first half of 2014 as Jan took photography classes and Sara became the website editor for the American Conifer Society. We hope to be back on a more regular schedule in the second half of the year.