Monday Opinion: Labor Day

Labor Day 2015 (9)More than once have I had reason to expect that the warm and sunny momentum established by my summer season would blast by Labor Day in a hot fit of defiance.  Given that the forecast for today is 90 degrees, might Mother Nature forget that today is Labor Day?   Every year I hope nature will be distracted by some warm September weather, and fail to note that the season is due to change.  Have my hopes of a summer that streams on for 4 months instead of 3 ever been fulfilled?  No. This bout of hot weather aside, there are signs that the summer season is slowing.

Labor Day 2015 (2)We’ve had a few cool and foggy mornings. The sun is lower in the sky. The morning light is coming on later, and the evening darkness earlier.The seeds on my dogwoods are ripe and red; the leaves have a considerable red tinge to them.  The hardy hibiscus have more seedpods developing than flowers. The Rozanne geraniums look the best they have all season – typical. The lily of the valley leaves  are singed with their usual end of summer fungus. The Limelight hydrangea flowers are showing some pink. The flowers on the hyssop have gone gray; the plants are dropping their lower leaves.

Labor Day 2015 (3)Some of the plants in my containers have moved past the thriving stage to the tired place. They have that pale foliage color that speaks to exhaustion. Some plants have gone limp from a summer’s worth of exertion growing. A week ago I cut back all of my nicotiana, and fed them. They have been lackluster all summer; I am hoping for a fall flush. The dahlias have not been happy this summer either. I am not sure if I will get a decent bloom before the mildew takes them down. My other containers are so root bound they need soaking, not just watering. The laurentia around the fountain grew too tall in the heat, turned yellow, and flopped over. I took them out.  The fountain is turning green with algae, right on time, in time, for Labor Day.

DSC_3264But there are plenty of containers which are right at what I call that “super nova” stage. Like a star that glows prior to imploding, they are at their most beautiful best – right now.  They are as glowingly good as they ever will be. All of the plants have grown out, and matured.  Each container has an overall shape-like it or not. Some plants have engulfed their containers.  Rob’s container of Russian sage, lamb’s ear and several thyme varieties-any ideas about what the container looks like? Me neither. This planting, right now, is at its most glorious best. Our window boxes stuffed with silver foliaged plants are looking just about as good.

angel-wing-begonias.jpgThese angel wing begonias are bowed over from the weight of all of their flowers. They have been beautiful all summer, but now they are at that very big and beautiful stage that foretells summer’s end.

wasabi coleusBut no summer container plant can come close to that Labor Day super nova size like coleus. The range of colors and leaf types is astonishing. Their willingness to grow is unparalleled. I enjoy growing them, partly as it is possible to shape them by pinching. I find this entertaining. If you think I am a dull girl, you are probably right.  This coleus Wasabi was grown from 3 4″ pots. Given a benevolent September, it will reach the ground. This pot I have not touched.  All the joy in it has been watching it grow.

DSC_3388These chocolate coleus feature a brown and cream cordyline that is almost invisible now. Were you standing directly over them, you would see that I had pinched out the top to reveal the cordyline.

Labor Day 2015 (18)This modestly sized Italian terra cotta rectangle is home to a hedge sized coleus.  We pinched the bottom out, to give the impatiens some breathing room, and some light. Labor Day 2015 (19)chocolate coleus, Kingwood Red coleus, and pink polka dot plant

Labor Day 2015 (17)This pot with an orange and green phormium at the center, pink polka dot plant and heuchera bears no relation to coleus, except that it has been thriving in the same vein all summer.

Labor Day 2015 (6)coleus peaking.  the petticoat below-maidenhair fern.

Labor Day 2015 (20)coleus Amora, coleus Alligator, and a subtle dash of pink polka dot

Labor Day 2015 (12)a coleus “Tilt a Whirl” standard, under planted with hens and chicks.  The accompanying lemon cypress grown on from a 6″ pot-looking good.

DSC_2215So what am I thinking about this Labor Day? That Labor Day usually signals the start of the end of my summer gardening season, of course.  But more importantly, that a working American gardener named Rob has gone the distance every day, day after day, since the middle of May to bring all of these container plantings along to this moment. If you live nearby, and haven’t seen them in person, they are well worth the trip. As for you, Rob, have a happy and well deserved Labor Day.

Leaves Other Than Green

coleus.jpgLeaves other than the the color green can be cause for excitement. The vast majority of garden plants in my zone are green, as in garden variety green.  Not that I object to that.  Green leaves are not simply green.  They have size, mass, texture, contrast, surface, shape and form.  An all green scheme explores all of these design issues.  But leaves other than green are a magnet for the eye, and the gardener.  My knowledge of how certain leaves are other than green is very sketchy.  Some color seems like it is laid over green.  The leaves of this shocking pink and carmine coleus seem clear, and not at all muddied by a green layer underneath.  Wasabi coleus is a lime version of green.  Somewhere in the color mix of this leaf is lots of yellow.

gray-leaves.jpgSome gray leaves have a green base to them-as in this Silver Shield plectranthus.  Other gray leaves, as pictured above, show no hint of green.  Where am I going with this?  Color as a container, garden, or landscape design element is as personal as it is complicated.

dark-leaved-begonia.jpgI find that everyone sees color differently.  The perception of color is much about the science of vision, but it is equally about perception.  I like every color.  I respond to the absence of color, and the combination of all colors.  I respond to certain color combinations more strongly than others.  The orange flowers of this begonia, by contrast, bring the black green leaves to life.

red-bor-kale.jpgThe color of Red Bor kale is black, under laid by carmine pink. Dusky purple in color, if you will.  This dark gray purple asks for a companion that will play off of, or feature that color.  The yellow green scented geranium is a perfect companion.  Chocolate sweet potato vine would be an interesting combination.  A garden variety green leaf would be neither here nor there.

lettuce-bowl.jpgI have a very tough time designing with red foliage.  Red leaved Japanese maples are gorgeous on their own, but I do not see them integrated into a color whole successfully very often.  I find the landscape with blue spruce, red Japanese maples, and burning bush (a very dull medium green) jarring, and unsatisfying.  Blue in the landscape looks good far away from the eye.  Red in the landscape looks good up close.  Dull gray green-where does that color belong?

wild-lime-coleus.jpgThe coleus that are available now have strikingly beautiful other than green color.  Wild lime coleus permits the placement of the color yellow in the shade.  Sum and Substance hosta, and creeping jenny are lime green.  Wild Lime has a yellow center.  This plant has great color potential for a seasonal planting.

caladiums-and-polka-dot-plant.jpgSome leaves are not completely other than green.  They are mixed.  This mixed pink and green color caladium is good with the mixed color polka dot plant. How so?  The caladium has green in its leaf, as does the polka dot plant.  There is common ground.

coleus.jpgThis black edged pink/red coleus is a striking color.  I could see planting it with a companionable other than green leaf.  As in black oxalis. Or red alteranthera.

coleus-and-Boston-ivy.jpgLeaves other than green are not so color friendly to green leaves.  Do I like this combination? Not so much.  I like color relationships that provoke or relate.  Color relationships that are standoffish make me uneasy.

coleus-and-begonias.jpgThere are those green leaved plants that bloom so generously that their green leaves are not a color issue.  The begonia leaves in this pot are a secondary visual issue.  This container combination takes nothing for granted. The coleus in this pot is edged with green.  The green leaves of the begonia, and the green edges of the coleus are in partnership.  The orange flowers, and those leaves other than green make a partnership of another kind.  The terra cotta pot-there is another color adding to the whole.   A visual discussion of color in the garden-interesting.


Leaves Other Than Green

Just like you, I understand that the green color of leaves has everything to do with the presence of chlorophyll.  There are those dark green leaves.  There are those lime green leaves.  I want to say the amount of chlorophyll governs the appearance of that green, but I may be making that up.  Some plants have leaves with color other than green.  This Florida Sweetheart caladium-the leaves are shockingly pink.  A clear pink.  The color possibilities that this plant enables in a shady spot are many. 

white caladiums

I am both surprised and not surprised that I do not see more gardeners using them for seasonal color.  I do have clients that insist they want flowers, not colorful leaves.  I have no answer to that-it is a matter of taste.  But from a design perspective, caladiums provide an opportunity for a big splash of color that is constant throughout the summer season.  I suspect another reason why I do not see them much is that they require a lot of heat to grow well.  This means that gardeners in my zone who plant in mid or late May may not see caladiums available for sale.  My grower’s caladiums are just getting good-this third week of June.   

green and white caladiums
Caladiums are incredibly tolerant of shade.  If impatiens or wax begonias make you want to yawn, caladiums are refreshingly different, and quite splashy.  4 plants in one of my deck boxes last summer were the size of a small shrub by summer’s end.  A 4th of July trip to see a friend in Kalamazoo last year included a trip to a greenhouse.  I bought a suburban load of caladiums, most of which were varieties I had never seen.  I did persuade my grower to try some this year-they are just now coming into their own.
 white caladiums

Any client who tells me they need white flowers, as opposed to the color white might tempt me to call school into session.  White is white-no matter whether than color is represented by wax begonias, non stop begonias, angelonia, cosmos, cleome, dahlias, -or white leaved caladiums.  Amazingly, I saw 4 giant planters full of this all white caladium-in full sun, on a city plaza.  There was not so much as a single scorch mark.  I have not had the nerve to try this at home, as many plants lacking chlorophyll will burn if exposed to too much direct light.  


I realize that almost all of the seasonal plants that are available for me to plant are tropical, as in native to tropical locales.  But some remind me of of their exotic origins more than others.  I have clients for whom I plant bananas, alocasias and calocasias, though I would not want them in my own garden.  They seem so blatantly out of place in my Michigan garden.  But caladiums are more subtly splashly, given their smaller mature size.   


 They have a cool, watery, and juicy look.  As they thrive in the heat, they always look fresh.  If they get too dry, they protest dramatically by falling over.  I like plants that do not make a mystery of what it is they need to be happy.

pink and green caladiums

Caladium leaves are medium to large, and beautifully shaped.  It seems to me that so many more cultivars are available now than what used to be.  But should caladiums simply not appeal to you, there are other seasonal plants with colorful leaves from which to choose.

polka dot plant

The polka dot plants-there are those green and white cultivars.  There is a pale pink, and a hot pink.  The plants are fairly short-they may grow to 12 or 15 inches tall.  They respond well to pinching.

coleus Freckles

There are many varieties of coleus.  I am especially fond of those whose leaves feature bright and clear color.

green coleus

This subtly colored olive and dark carmine variety whose name I do not know is what I cal a chamaeleon plant.  Its coloration changes in appearance depending on its neighbor. 

coleus and caladiums

coleus chocolate mint

Coleus Chocolate mint is aptly named.  It is great looking with just about every other color.

multicolored coleus.jpg

This multi colored variety I hear tell wants full sun.  When I run into a plant that I am not familiar with, I like to try it at the shop or at home before I plant it for someone else. 

We’ll see how it works out-bullseye geraniums, and this fingerling coleus.

Dark And Dramatic

What makes dark leaved plants so irresistable?  Their relative rarity attracts the eye in an instant.  Of all of the thousands of green leaved plants in my garden, I have no plants with “other than green” leaves.  Were I to plant a red-leaved plant there, it would attract attention.  A red-leaved Japanese maple stands out from the crowd by virtue of its color alone-never mind that it is a tree with many virtues.  Red leaves can create excitement in a visually sleepy place; the color is unexpected.  Though I would not be inclined to indroduce red leaved plants into my landscape, I like them in containers.  These old red leaved spikes provide a dramatic accent to this grouping of pots.  The choice of lime licorice as an underplanting reflects my general rule-if I use dark leaved plants in a container, I stay away from green leaved companion plants.      

Once I make the decision to feature a plant with dark foliage, the supporting cast plants need be friendly to that color.  Lime licorice verges on yellow; inky fingers coleus has a deep purple ground, with just a hint of bright green on the edges.  Medium green and medium red make mud together.  I like sharp, crisp, delicate and dramtic color-no mud.  Big black foliage needs more black foliage to make a dramatic color statement.  The rim of bright green on this Inky Fingers coleus describes its small texture-it brings all of the color to life.  Medium green foliage in this container-thud.    

This red/black foliaged hibiscus is a very strong grower.  It can easily attain 6 feet in a single season.  The red and lime bicolor coleus and lime licorice light up that dark color from below.  I have thought on occasion to pair it with the big ruffly leaved farfugium; the contrast in texture would be great.  The red and green color combination I am reluctant to try.  Want an other than green foliaged scheme?  Follow through with every move you make.

I did make an exception in this case.  The strap leaved New Zealand flax, or phormium, is black leaved; perhaps there is a hint of brown.  The large, bright flower heads of the peach geraniums attract the eye; its great leaves fade away into the distance.  The violet petunias are so covered with blooms that the green foliage is scarcely visible.  This planting is dark and dramatic.

This large and black leaved canna is a boldly sensational plant.  It has great stature, texture, and mass-there is no missing it.  The red violet and lime yellow coleus Arizona Sunset repeats that dark foliage color in a different hue, and leavens it with lime.  The delicate and pale lavender petunias are a sharp contrast-all of that lavender brings out the purple in the canna leaves.  The flowers have all but obliterated any view of its green foliage.  

This centers of these canna leaves appear green when the sun shines through them. This made it fine for me to plant an olive green coleus with a red violet obverse next to it.  The red thread leaved alternanthera appears to darken as it matures-a large mass of red leaves traps light, rather than reflecting it.  The pink petunias and creeping jenny define the lower edge of the alternanthera mass.  Very dark foliage benefits from some lighter company-any other color than medium green, please.

Malabar spinach has very dark green leaves which are red violet on the reverse side.  The stems and knobby flowers are also dark red violet.  Though I love how it climbs to great heights in just one season, I also value that dark foliage.  Persian Shield and black sweet potato vine mirror that color quite well.  This pot was dark up 12 feet into the sky, and just as dark, down to the ground.  This made me think a big button of green-foliaged Red Sun zinnias would work.  

The very dark purple oxalis triangularis is one of my favorite plants.  That rich dark red violet leaf-so beautiful.  I especially like it with Solenia orange begonia.  Very little of the green leaves of the begonia are visible-this is a study in orange and dark red violet.  The varigated licorice is not your garden variety green-it looks as fresh as the description mint green suggests. The big idea here-should you choose to include dark foliaged plants in your landscape, garden, or containers, pay even more attention to the color you put with them.