With so many flowers that bloom in brilliant, eye-catching colours, green is often overlooked and underrated. And yet, just about every plant bears a green leaf or stem. Ignoring the design potential of green foliage is much like not seeing the forest for the trees. Green can soothe when you’re frazzled, cool when it’s sweltering and calm when there’s just too much going on. And, green plants are especially useful in shade gardens where lower levels of sun can reduce and limit flowering. Sun-loving plants may flaunt their flowers, but shade-tolerant ones rely on their various hues of green foliage to grab your attention.
The power of green first struck me several years ago when I toured a woodland garden in Vancouver. What impressed me was how the myriad of shade-loving hostas, ferns, astilbes and heucheras that grew by the side of a stream created a striking green tapestry: emerald, jade, Kelly, Lincoln, pea green, pistachio and sage.
This monochromatic colour scheme is one of the easiest to design with. Mix your greens much like a salad, combining emeralds with pale sea green, or contrasting forest green leaves with a plant with a leaf of a similar shade, but edged in white. The trick is to find a balance of light, mid-tone and dark-hued foliage, and let their different tones show off each other.
My favourite hue of green is chartreuse. It can brighten a dark corner or draw attention to the more subtle colour combinations around it. Chartreuse echoes through my shady garden; the blades of ‘Sweet Kate’ spiderwort (Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’) bounce off the leaves of ‘Sunningdale Variegated’ masterwort (Astrantia major ‘Sunningdale Variegated’), which picks up the foliage of ‘Gold Heart’ bleeding heart (previously known at Dicentra ‘Gold Heart,’ but that now goes under the tongue-twisting name of Lamprocapnos ‘Gold Heart’). Some gardeners use chartreuse with a restrained hand, but I embrace it with abandon. In my garden, you’ll find a golden-green barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea Nana’), the feathery leaves of a tiger eyes sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tigereye Bailtige’) and the ruffled leaves of a coral bells plant called Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey’ Claiming pride of place in a planter on my front porch is a new frost-tender fern I discovered at the Enjoy Centre just outside Edmonton, labelled Tiger Fern. Each of the broad fronds is striped in alternating shades of gold and chartreuse, making this the container plant find of the season.
The soil in shade gardens is often clogged with the roots of surrounding trees, which not only makes transplanting hard work, but the roots can rob new plants of nutrients and moisture. Garden writer Larry Hodgson recommends lining a hole with a couple of layers of newspaper. Add some good soil on top of the newspaper and plant inside the protective pocket. “Selecting a fairly mature plant with a good root system gives better results,” he adds.