Have you ever looked at your yard and thought, “This needs something to jazz it up?” Something to make it more than just another ho-hum planting of “round green meatballs” as some of my horticulture friends like to call plants that look like, well, round green meatballs.
There are lots of plants that can liven up a plain yard. Even one plant, properly selected and located, can make a striking statement and attract attention. The following is a very small sampling of plants with dramatic form or foliage that can provide a distinctive look to the landscape.
Loropetalum, better known as Chinese Fringe Shrub, came out of obscurity in the 1990’s with the introduction of varieties with burgundy-colored foliage and raspberry-colored fringe flowers. It’s now almost as common as ligustrum, with good reason – it has few pest problems, adapts well to pruning, and is very colorful. What many folks don’t realize is that most varieties get very large, up to 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, and therefore require lots of shearing if planted in front of windows or in a location where a short, compact shrub is needed. So, be careful where you plant. Good news is that there is a compact variety called Purple Diamond that stays much shorter, growing only 5 feet tall and wide.
Ornamental grasses add a totally different kind of texture to the garden than your typical round, green shrub. They typically grow as an upright fountain of narrow leaves, topped in summer through winter with attractive plumes of seed heads. Long leaves gracefully move with every breeze, and their general shape gives the landscape an overall soft, informal feeling. There many varieties and types of ornamental grasses, some with variegated foliage, ranging in size from 2 feet tall to towering 8 or more feet high. One large ornamental grass or a drift of smaller grasses, such as Gulf Coast Muhly, can add a lot of character and interest to a yard.
Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata) ‘Sky Pencil’ is a recent release from the United States National Arboretum plant introduction program. ‘Sky Pencil’ has a very distinctive form. This slow-growing, evergreen holly is very narrow and very upright. It will make an “exclamation point” in your landscape, so use it carefully. One good location for such a shrub is where you might want to soften a corner of the house. It easily fits into small spaces where you might need a little height and greenness. Without pruning, it can eventually grow 10 feet tall and about 2.5 feet wide, but can be easily kept smaller.
Ferns – All kinds of ferns are ideal for softening harsh surroundings, and the lacy, delicate foliage of most ferns is a great unifier. Some grow as slowly expanding clumps, while others race to fill in unoccupied spaces, so chose your types carefully. Ferns are great choices for shady locations where little else will grow. Some ferns have colored foliage, like Japanese painted fern and the new growth of autumn fern, adding extra interest.
Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra) – An old fashioned, tough-as-nails plant for shade that is quite dramatic with large, upright, dark green leaves. It is slow growing, forming dense clumps. Remove winter injured leaves in spring, and it will quickly produce another batch of healthy spear-shaped leaves to accent a dark corner of your yard.
Bold and tropical looking is Fatsia japonica, or Japanese Fatsia. With very large, bold, deeply lobed leaves, Fatsia grows to about 6 to 8 feet tall and almost as wide, so give it room to be bold. Does best in partial to full shade.
Japanese maples are wonderful plants for East Texas landscapes. There are hundreds of named varieties, though only a handful of varieties are available through local sources. One common variety with a very dramatic form and shape is ‘Crimson Queen’. This Japanese maple is strongly weeping or cascading, eventually making a large mound of burgundy-red foliage. The leaves are very finely divided, turning bright red in the fall.
Ligularia (now called Farfugium) –. The Leopard Plant is the most familiar of this dramatic group of shady plants. You may have seen it if you walked through the Pyron garden on the Tyler Azalea Trail this spring. The large, round, dark green leaves are randomly covered with bright yellow spots. We have been growing farfugiums in the Shade Plant trial bed in the Tyler Rose Garden for several years. Stephen F. Austin Mast Arboretum also has a great collection of these. Not commonly seen in retail outlets, but hopefully becoming more available.
Coleus is not a rare plant, but if you are looking for something with colorful leaves, you can have just about any color combination you can think of from this shade-loving annual. And in the last several years, coleus has come out of the shadows with several sun-tolerant varieties. Plant several in a drift for a dramatic effect.