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Guide to top foliage plants

Many people love flowers, and there’s no doubt that a garden in full summer bloom is a joy to behold. Tucked away at the back of our borders, however, are the trees, shrubs and grasses that provide our gardens with density and structure. Read on to learn how to make the most of the huge variety of interesting textures and colours of foliage available, which is the key to clever garden design.

Small trees

It might seem odd to choose a tree simply for its bark, but specimens like the red snake-bark maple and acer conspicuum Red Flamingo are stunning, and their textured and highly coloured bark will bring flare to your borders.

If you’re thinking of a more long-term investment, espaliered or fan-trained fruit trees can look great against a wall or fence, and they have the extra bonus of providing you with fruit once they’re fully established. For screening or extra height above a fence or wall, pleached trees, such as hornbeam, lime or beech, create instant privacy and sophistication.

Ferns and hostas

Ferns don’t have seeds or flowers, but they have beautiful frond-like leaves and a clearly defined shape. Athyriums like Lady Fern are vibrantly green, while Silver Falls and Burgundy Lace have a silvery, lilac colouring. For height and impact, the ostrich feather fern is hard to beat, and all ferns are hardy and do well in shady conditions.

Another shade-loving staple, hostas do flower, but it’s their dense, waxy leaves that make them so effective in a border. Try Fire and Ice or Gold Standard for variegated leaves and Whirlwind and Blue Ivory for some unusual shades of green.

Dogwood and bamboo

There are over 50 species of cornus, more often known as dogwood, and you’ll know it for its marvellous red woody stems in winter and its pretty blossoms and berries in summer. Ideal for winter colour, Midwinter Fire and Sibirica are particularly colourful varieties.

Bamboo also offers great vertical structure and can be grown in clumps. As long as you avoid unchecked growth and go for a clumped variety, rather than the more invasive running varieties, bamboo takes very little maintenance, and these evergreen plants have attractive woody stems and delicate leaves.

Lilies and cannas

Hedychiums, also known as ginger lilies, have large palm-like leaves and provide jungle-style greenery and height. Assam Orange and Tropicana are both very exotic-looking varieties and can add a tropical look to your planting.

The canna lily is also tall and has unusual dark, almost black foliage. With paddle-shaped leaves and a dense vertical structure, these plants look impressive anywhere in your garden.

Ornamental grasses

Pampas grass is an obvious contender in this category – large, showy and prolific, this is a grass that makes a bold statement. Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimusis is another showstopper, which is a compact, clump-forming ornamental grass with arching green leaves and feathery plumes in rich tones of red. Carex is a good choice for ground cover, and mid-level grasses like stipa arundinacea bloom in late summer and early autumn, adding colour to your garden when many other plants are past their best.

Perhaps this is the year to make trunks, leaves and branches the heroes in your garden.

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