Book Review: Foliage First

One of the mantras often repeated by garden designers is “think foliage first, then flowers.” Foliage lasts throughout the growing season and sometimes hangs on into winter, while flowers on trees, shrubs and perennials tend to be fleeting.

Foliage first coverIn this book by Washington-state based garden designers Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz, foliage is both the star of the show and a crucial supporting player in more than 127 designs. The authors contend—and I know from personal experience that this is true—that many gardeners head to the nursery in spring and are seduced by all of the blooms. You bring home a passel of plants that are done blooming before the Fourth of July.

Garden designers, in contrast, will bring home plants with large and small leaves, lots of texture, variegation and color contrast. The result is garden that looks inviting even during those weeks between bloom bursts.

Gardening with Foliage First (Timber Press, 2017) begins with guidance on choosing foliage plants by focusing on their color, texture and form. Just as interior designers will choose a fabric that inspires an entire room’s design, Chapman and Salwitz recommend selecting an inspiration plant and building your design around that.

The authors provide 127 recipes for plant combinations that work well in containers, borders and even in the vegetable garden.  Here are two of my favorites. One was called Cherry Garcia, and combined the dark foliage of Diabolo ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’) with a pretty pink-flowered clematis (Clematis ‘Purpurea Plena Elegans’) for a lovely summer show; and another called Mixed up Mosaic, which places Golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) with a low-growing cotoneaster (Contoneaster horiztonalis ‘Perpusillus’).

Northern gardeners should be aware that Salwitz and Chapman garden in Washington state, in areas with significantly more mild climates than we have. So many of their recipes include plants that are hardy to our zones—but the ideas will still work, if you can find an alternative plant. For instance, one combination includes a redleaf rose (Rosa glauca), which is hardy to USDA Zone 2, with a zone 5 burgundy smokebush. While that smokebush might not survive here, ‘Royal Purple’ smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’) works in zone 4 and would be just as lovely.

For gardeners interested in adding more foliage to their gardens, Chapman and Salwitz have produced an inspiring guide.


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