When it comes to gardens most of us first think in terms of flowers. We slow down and smell them, we cut them for decorations, we give them to our sweeties, and they make us happy. But to my mind, what really gives the garden its character is its structure, which depends on foliage. This includes sizes, textures, forms, and contrasts; all elements best provided by leaves.

Agave - Illustration by Helen Krayenhoff

Olfactory stimulation plays a big part in the charm of garden memories, and floral fragrances have a deep history in the making of perfumes. Many of these are associated with feminine attributes, while the herbal aroma of leaves evokes a more masculine character. Many leaves have aromatic oils, which bring us the scents of Mesquite, Rosemary, Sagebrush and any number of plants from our CA Chaparral, or the French Garrigue.

From dramatic to understated, you can go vertical or horizontal, soft or sharp. I love mixing forms and contrasting textures when planning the bones for my garden. I’m not advocating a garden devoid of flowers, rather a canvas where different brush strokes are being applied to the foundation of the art that is your garden.

What follows are a few of our favorite plants for foliage. Hopefully you can see some of these on your next nursery visit, and incorporate a few of them into your garden scheme.


  • Stipa gigantean  Giant Feather Grass
  • Gunnera tinctoria  Dinosaur Food
  • Hosta sieboldiana  Plantain Lily


  • Asparagus setaceus  Emerald Feather
  • Coreopsis verticillata   Coreopsis Daisy
  • Chamaelaucium u.  Geraldton Waxflower


  • Buxus spp.  Boxwood
  • Salvia spp.   Sage
  • Thymus spp.  Thyme


  • Astelia n. chathamica  Silver Spear
  • Phormium hybrids  New Zealand Flax
  • Miscanthus s. Strictus  Porcupine Grass



  • Sedum m.  Ogon
  • Helichrysum  Limelight


  • Heuchera Palace Purple
  • Lobelia fulgens


  • Artemisia Powis Castle
  • Stachys byzantina