Garden Books


Planting time has arrived. Every nursery is crowded with trees, perennials, annuals, shrubs, bulbs and seeds. Dark greens, chartreuses, silvers, blues, reds, purples and variegated leaves stun your vision as you wander among the plants.

Each spring my hands itch to stuff my shopping cart with exotic vegetation to add color when my blossoms fade or fail. My grasp is controlled by doubts about what effect their dominant colors would have on the look of my small garden. How does a gardener select from and combine all of these shapes, sizes and colors to create beauty?

The book, Foliage, by Nancy Ondra (Storey Publishing) answers this question. It offers award-winning advice on how to choose and how to arrange variously colored plants to achieve a satisfying garden appearance.

As the title implies, choosing vegetation with colored leaves is the emphasis of the book.   The first section, “Exploring Your Options,” explains that “the qualities that make foliage attractive are essentially the same that apply to flowers: shape, size, texture, and color.” The author discusses how to use each of these characteristics to its best advantage. As an example, the author suggests how to choose appropriately sized leaves.

Determine how closely your garden will be viewed, for small colorful leaves have little appeal from a distance.  To place large-leafed specimens, she advises that their location be limited to moist spots, for most are quiet thirsty.

The remaining four chapters discuss golden, red to black, silver, gray and blue and multicolor plants. Each chapter is divided into parts that explain how to “get started,” how to design the garden with the specific colors and recommends a group of plants.

“Getting started” includes an interesting botanical explanation of the chemical reasons plants have various hues. The advice on designing with color explains the visual results of combining various tones and what types of plants can improve plant pairings. She also provides listing of words that commonly indicate various colors in plant catalogs and divides the plants into lists for sun and for shade.

The recommended plants include vegetation as common as hostas and sedum to types of grasses, shrubs and trees with which I was unfamiliar. The plants are arranged by leaf shape. Each plant is listed by its scientific name followed by a common name, height, leaf size light needs, and growing zones. A close-up leaf photograph accompanies the well-written description of its appearance and growing tips. In case you like a particular plant’s appearance, but don’t have its recommended zone, light, or moisture, a short “alternative” section suggests a similar plant that will grow in different conditions. In addition to the information given on each plant, Ms.Ondra wisely advises that seeing the real plant as it appears at a local nursery is the best way to decide on a purchase.

Ms. Ondra humorously calls herself a “plant geek” in her Internet blog, but I would describe her as an excellent and prolific writer. After graduating with a degree in agronomy and environmental science, she worked for the Rodale Press as an editor for five years before becoming a freelance writer in 1995. Since then she has run two nursery/farms in Pennsylvania and has written eight books of which two won awards. In her Hayefield blog, filled with numerous witty plant articles, she admits that her present interest is “colored foliage.” The book, Foliage, definitely illustrates her avid fascination with vivid plants, and reading it may lead to choosing plants by taking her advice, “look to the leaves, of course.”

Christine Thomson is a Raleigh gardener obsessed with plants.  She is a volunteer at the Raulston Arboretum and fills her spare time reading books, especially volumes about vegetation.

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