Beautiful foliage carries the summer garden

'Trailing Plum Brocade' coleus would look great spilling over a wall or a container.
‘Trailing Plum Brocade’ coleus would look great spilling over a wall or a container.

A garden without beautiful foliage is boring especially in the middle of a hot summer. Except in Oklahoma’s most temperate years, most flowers slow down or even stop. That’s why roses in my part of the country are spring and fall performers. They hang on through summer petulant and miserable as only queens can. Since Oklahoma is rarely temperate I’ve come to rely upon beautiful foliage plants, both perennial and tropical, to carry my garden into fall.

Black elephant ear that can handle the sun. It does burn, but you can't see it. I bought my plant at Bustani Plant Farm.
Black elephant ear that can handle the sun. It does burn, but you can’t see it. I bought my plant at Bustani Plant Farm.

Then, if it gets too hot in July and August, I go on vacation leaving the garden to fend for itself for a couple of weeks. Because I have a watering system, I can do that. I gardened for twenty plus years with soaker hoses and timers. In fact, the garage bed below is still on a soaker hose and timer. I run it for an hour four days a week. It has very sandy soil because of all the builder’s sand from when we built the garage.

Rosa 'Darcey Bussell' with Acer palmatum 'Rilas Red'
Rosa ‘Darcey Bussell’ is as beautiful as any Southern belles, but she also gets a lot from her supporting player, Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Rilas Red.’ If you’re going to grow Japanese maples in Oklahoma, do it on the East side of the house. They get half a day of sun that way.

Before you hit the nurseries this spring–I see you Bustani Plant Farm lovers–consider foliage before blooms. Gardens take planning, and now is the time to plan. I’m predicting a hot and dry spring followed by a La Nina summer. God help us, I hope 2016 isn’t like 2011 parts I and II. That was the worst summer of my entire gardening life. Unfortunately, 2016 is starting out similarly. It was 73°F again yesterday with lows above freezing most of February. I’m not complaining. I’ll just enjoy this perfect weather while it lasts.

'Wasabi' and 'Alabama Sunset' Coleus with pentas. There is nothing like 'Alabama Sunset' when it gets that yellow foliage on top.
‘Wasabi’ and ‘Alabama Sunset’ Coleus with pentas. There is nothing like ‘Alabama Sunset’ when it gets that yellow foliage on top.

While there are summer flowers for summer heat, if we have a hot and dry summer again, your blooms won’t be as abundant. No amount of watering takes the place of rain, and we must conserve water. As I explained to a friend from another state, in the middle of summer in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, nights stay almost as hot as the days. Plants never get a chance to recover. It’s like asking Southern belles to wear their petticoats to bed with no air conditioning. How would you like to bed down on a sleeping porch in a hoop skirt?

Dark grass at OSU Botanical Gardens. Might be 'Princess Caroline' or Vertigo.
Dramatic dark grass at the Botanic Garden at OSU. Might be ‘Princess Caroline’ or Vertigo.

Yeah, me neither. Easier to grow a dark dramatic grass like the one above at the Botanic Garden at Oklahoma State University, than a temperamental rose any day. I still like roses though. I bought two new English roses this spring.

Florida City™ Yalaha coleus is now one of my favorites.
Florida City™ Yalaha coleus is one of my new favorites.

Which beautiful foliage plants do I love best? Let’s start with that charming chameleon coleus. There are so many wonderful varieties these days because most don’t mind the sun.

In this pot are, Petunia Sophistica Lime Bicolor', 'Partytime' alternanthera, Coleus 'Electric Lime', Diamond Frost euphorbia and 'Indian Summer' coleus
In this pot are, Petunia Sophistica Lime Bicolor’, ‘Partytime’ alternanthera, ‘Electric Lime’ coleus, Diamond Frost euphorbia and ‘Indian Summer’ coleus, the last being another one of my favorites.

Let’s pause a moment and let that last sentence sink in. How many of you remember when coleus was only a shade plant?

One of my pots on the deck with 'Henna' coleus, 'Princess Caroline' grass and some trailing plants.
One of my pots on the deck with ‘Henna’ coleus, ‘Princess Caroline’ grass and some trailing plants.

Can I get a hallelujah? The pot, above, is a large one that sits on my back deck in full sun most of the day. ‘Henna’ coleus shrugs off the heat. However, remember that these pots have drip irrigation and with a timer set to run everyday. I have different sized nozzles for different pots depending upon how much water they need.

Beautiful foliage carries the summer garden. Coleus Bonefish with 'The Line' coleus and 'Marguerite' sweet potato vine.
Bonefish coleus, ‘The Line’ coleus and ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine frame Mary in this view. That was the year when grasshoppers chewed tiny holes in all of my sweet potato vine. Arrgh.

One of the earliest sun varieties was ‘Alabama Sunset,’ and I still grow it although there are plenty of others from which to choose. Some were developed at the University of Florida. I love Big Red Judy™, Electric Lime™ and Royal Glissade™. Maybe I should write a post called “Crazy ’bout Coleus.” Look for that next week. Ha!

Sunpatiens, pentas, Iresine, Alabama Sunset coleus
Sunpatiens, pentas, Iresine, Alabama Sunset coleus are bright companions at the end of the garden.

Alternanthera is a varied genus full of opportunity. Yes, it’s tropical and will die with the first freeze, but cuttings are an option for overwintering, or you can buy more plants the following spring. I’m always on the lookout for ‘Red Threads’ or ‘Purple Knight,’ and the latter can be grown from seed. I often find alternanthera in the strangest places like Under the Sun Garden Centers  in Edmond. If you see a unique foliage plant, and it’s not a coleus, it will probably be alternanthera. Alternanthera doesn’t  look like much in a four-inch pot, but give it a little organic fertilizer, water and heat from the sun, and voila! you have almost instant beauty.

Back garden in October with Purple Knight alternanthera and other beautiful foliage plants. Dee Nash
Back garden in October with ‘Purple Knight’ alternanthera and other foliage plants.

Iresine is another genus you should take advantage of for your garden. Chicken gizzard plant–a sad name for such a beautiful plant–always grows here in summer. I have some starts in the greenhouse waiting patiently. ‘Blazin’ Rose’ is really pretty if you can find it. So is ‘Brilliantissima’ glowing hot pink in the photo above.

Also, don’t forget some of the brilliant amaranth and celosia. I grew ‘Dragon’s Breath’ last summer. Oh la la. It takes forever to bloom, but who cares?

'Tamukeyama' Japanese maple and a dark canna.
‘Tamukeyama’ Japanese maple and a dark canna. I don’t remember the cultivar. Sorry.

Not all beautiful foliage is tropical either. Don’t forget red Japanese maples, or the green ones, like ‘Sango-kaku‘ that turn amber in the fall. ‘Tamukeyama’ is the most sun tolerant Japanese maple I grow. Here is when it was very small. Consider adding dark-leaved and mysterious cannas to your repertoire. I love adore ‘Austrailia,’ and there are others. Also, you might find a four-inch pot of Japanese false nettle, Boehmeria nipononivea ‘Kogane Mushi,’ at Bustani Plant Farm, although I’m told it’s mostly a fall offering. Still, you might ask when you visit. I bought three plants three years ago, and last summer, they looked like this. Also, they don’t have the stinging hairs of real nettles which is a relief.

Japanese false nettle, Boehmeria nipononivea 'Kogane Mushi,' with Phlox paniculata in partial shade.
Japanese false nettle, Boehmeria nipononivea ‘Kogane Mushi,’ with Phlox paniculata in partial shade.

Whew! That’s a lot to think about as you plan your garden. Now, tell me which foliage plants carry your garden through summer. Now, mes amies, I’d love to learn some new ones as I’m always on the lookout for beautiful foliage. I’m headed out to the garden because it’s another beautiful, almost-spring day. See you soon!


  1. So many mouthwatering ideas, thank you!! A friend in okc asked me for ideas on exactly this topic, I will happily just share your gorgeous list, thank you Dee. Looks like this might be my year to explore coleus. xoxo

  2. Rose says:

    I’ve come to love coleus, especially the ones with red or bronze foliage. ‘Big Judy’ and ‘Sedona’ are two of my favorites. I’ve never seen ‘Alabama Sunset’ for sale around here–what a beauty! Thanks for so many great ideas, Dee!

  3. I recently read an article or a post somewhere (can’t remember where) that said the writer was glad we’re back to celebrating flowers as opposed to foliage. Which puzzled me because can’t we celebrate both? And foliage is generally with us for the whole season, whereas flowers come and go. Lovely post, Dee.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Yes, why does everything have to be either/or? I mean, really. I love flowers and foliage. Good thoughts Jodi.

  4. Les says:

    I don’t think I could garden without coleus. You mentioned two of my favs, Big Red Judy, and Henna, which we used at work last year with great success.

  5. indygardener says:

    Good advice, Dee. Everyone runs for the flowers here in May at the garden centers. They need to look more at the foliage. Foliage brings it all together!

  6. My climate can be a bit more temperate than yours, so I don’t have to forgo the use of flowers for summer color. Still, I do like to slip interesting foliage into the garden, just in case. I especially like pots of coleus and caladiums.

  7. Vickie M. says:

    Thank you for this timely reminder to remember the foliage as we get ready to plan our gardens! More coleus for me!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Glad to help Vickie. Writing about it helps me remember too. 😉

  8. It hasn’t warmed up here as yet but seeing all these lovely foliage plants gets my imagination fired up. It won’t be long now and I will be able to start putting together some of these yummy combinations. I don’t know how it would do but a beautiful begonia that I found last year was an angelwing ‘Golden Lime’ that has lime colored leaves with what appears to be red stitching around the outer edges of the leaves. It was a great plant for pots. Mine got some morning sun and did well. Happy gardening…

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Ooh nice, begonias usually do well here with some shade. I need to try to find that begonia. Thanks Lisa!

  9. Leslie says:

    Just beautiful Dee! I love dark plants and have added more the last few years…thanks for some more good ideas!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you Leslie! I love dark plants. I cannot lie.

  10. Love that Japanese false nettle!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      It’s great stuff. I’m not sure it would be perennial where you live though Kathy in your cold climate.

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