Gardening 101

Consider the Plant Leaf

Plant leaf

Too often when we are planning our gardens we fail to consider the plant leaf. Most of us think of flowers, color, or size of a particular plant when contemplating its purchase but we need to consider the size and shape of leaves—after all, it’s the leaf that will be with us longer than the blooms. Perennials bloom for six out of the fifty-two weeks so even with deciduous plants we still have a lot of weeks left to ponder their leaves.

Typically it’s the plant with variegated leaves that attracts us at the nursery or garden center. We happily take it home, hoping it will light up a shady area of our garden, only to find in many cases the plant does not thrive. I love variegation in the yard but most variegated plants are not as strong as their all-green brothers and sisters. After all, a plant needs a certain number of chloroplasts, which are reduced in number in the variegated leaves.

As I write this, we’ve gone through ten days of cloudy, rainy weather. The asters haven’t bloomed yet, the roses are crying for sun, and the amarcrinums are my only blooms. Consequently, I have been thinking of leaf size, thinking about what catches my eye.

Plants With Interesting Leaves

Here in this area of North Carolina, many of our plants have small leaves. Look at the azaleas and my beloved roses. Small leaves typically hold little interest so it makes sense giving them contrast. I love the big leafed colocasia next to the roses. I love the spikiness of the crinum leaves of ‘Super Ellen’ that make a bold statement even when the flowers are finished—this is an example of a plant we grow for both its flowers and its leaves whereas the flowers of the colocasia are nothing to write home about.

Palm fronds offer lovely interest to the garden and not all palms are large. Sabal minors hover around five feet in height—and they consist of fronds as their stem amazingly grows underground. Its flowers are bizarre—ones that only a mother could love—and incredibly seedy so I recommend cutting the flower stalks when they appear at the end of May and the beginning of June. Another lovely addition to the garden is the needle palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix, a slow grower that also reaches a height of five feet. Palms truly increase winter interest as a palm frond covered with light snow is a lovely sight.

If you have room, try growing the Japanese banana, Musa basjoo, which is virtually indestructible. I now have a grove of banana plants in the back of my property where the five feet long leaves hover in the skyline. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one. No matter how bad our winter is, they come back with a vengeance.

Get in the habit of looking at plants as you walk out to the mailbox. Which ones attract your eye? Inevitably, if there is little in bloom, it’s the large-leafed ones that capture your attention.

Get in the habit of noticing contrast. For example in my backyard (that used to be a swimming pool), I now have two medium size crape myrtles, ‘Tonto’. Crape myrtles bloom throughout the summer and then display their magnificent trunks throughout the winter but in the in-between stage when they are through flowering but are still hanging on to their leaves, they hold very little interest. Back with them, I have a volunteer redbud—whether it’s American or Chinese I do not know, as it hasn’t bloomed for me yet—but my eye is attracted to it because its heart-shaped leaves are a lovely contrast to the small-leafed crape myrtles. In the background is a huge clump of Canna musafolia, another volunteer. C. musafolia has large leaves and grows to a height of six feet, making a rather majestic statement. It’s flowers, while small, are noticeable because they are red and bloom for four straight months. In the backyard where the terriers rule, these four plantings offer a great deal of interest with a minimum of effort.

To be a good gardener, it’s important to learn the art of observance. Next time look at your plantings and note which non-blooming plants hold your eye. Inevitably it will be those whose leaves are irregular, perhaps large in size, or are spiky in nature. That’s why a good gardener learns to consider the leaf.

Featured image – Jeon Sang-O / Pixabay

After joining the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners in 2003, Kit Flynn now has emeritus status. She writes gardening articles for the Durham County Extension Master Gardener newsletter, an online magazine “Senior Correspondent,” and “The Absentee Gardeners” column for “The Blowing Rocket” with Lise Jenkins.


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