leaves first: favorite foliage to unify the garden, with ken druse

leaves first: favorite foliage to unify the garden, with ken druse

Ken Druse, friend of many years, and author and photographer of 20 garden books, including “The New Shade Garden” and “Making More Plants,” and most recently, “The Scentual Garden” about fragrance, is back to talk about what’s getting our gardens through the midseason slump: leaves, whether big and bold or fine-textured, and in a range of colors, too. (That’s Ken’s Syneilesis, above.)

Read along as you listen to the July 20, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Plus: Enter to win a copy of Ken’s book “The New Shade Garden” by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page. That’s Ken’s leafy summer garden, below.


Ken Druse: Hi, Margaret. You started with the herbivores and I was already thinking of snails.

Margaret Roach: Oh, I guess they’re herbivorous, too, but they’re not furbearers.

Ken: No.

Margaret: Yeah. And no four legs. How’s it going with the bunny patrol? [Laughter.]

Ken: Oh gosh. In the past we actually had one bunny at a time and people said that’s impossible, but I guess the baby bunny was dropped by a hawk or something, because that was when the bridges were grates instead of paved, and we didn’t have any animals because no animals could get on the island. But they paved the bridge…and anyway, this is the first time this has happened, but it’s like Australia. The hares are on the march.

Margaret: My Number 6, Woody Number 6, went into Witness Relocation yesterday. So yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Before we start, I should say that we’re going to give away a copy of “The New Shade Garden”–“The New Shade Garden” not meaning it just came out, but meaning it’s not your original shade garden book, correct?

Ken: That is correct. And it’s different. It’s not a reworking of the original, very popular book.

Margaret: No.

Ken: It’s a different take. And it has a lot to do with climate change, dealing with that.

Margaret: Yeah. And it has a lot of foliage in it. So I thought it’d be a good one for this topic to share with people. So we’ll have that with the transcript.

Ken: That’s nice. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yes. And we’re also going to each gather and show off some leaves in the week ahead on Instagram, so I’ll give the link to that, too [Ken’s feed; or Margaret’s feed]. You also have been showing some incredible images lately of crazy things, including some really beautiful things with leaves like, I think it was a gold, variegated lily of the valley, maybe with-

Ken: Oh, yeah, sure.

Margaret: What’s that?

Cary Institute, now, of Ecosystem Studies–which is about 40 minutes away from here. But I was a weekend gardener, and it was on the drive; I passed it on the way, and I saw they had a plant sale one Friday, and I stopped in. And they had two plants that were in their garden, Astilboides [below], which has very big leaves in the shade, and Rodgersia, a cousin of it also, and I brought home pots of those two, so I think that’s where my craziness began: The bigger, the better.

the Japanese Stroll Garden, the John P. Humes, Japanese–

Margaret: In Long Island, no, I did not. I did not.

Ken: That’s where I first saw that plant, and people sell it, but with the wrong name, and it’s not that plant, because it’s actually very hard to find that plant that you have. See, I could sell my lily of the valley and you could sell your Petasites, but you have to tell people, in both cases, “This plant needs to be edited.” For the lily of the valley, I have it in a raised bed, in two raised beds actually, so it can’t go everywhere, although it wants to.

Margaret: Right. So, less precious, but very big and bold, I have a giant mass of rhubarb, just edible, plain old rhubarb, perennial, wonderful. Just a week or two ago, late June—I don’t harvest the stems early when they’re the most tender and small, because I love the look of the plant. And so I wait until a little later and I know that’s not, cooking wise, maybe they’re going to be a little more fibrous, but whatever. But it’s this big mass of it surrounding a bench on the edge of the vegetable garden, and to me, that’s just as beautiful. It doesn’t have to be a rarity. It could be rhubarb [below], I think.

Margaret Roach rhubarbDarmera, which is a native of California, but does just fine here. I have that Ligularia japonica, which for some reason, people don’t grow that. This is a mystery, because that’s an easy-to-grow plant, and I have it in a place where the snails would decimate it if they were interested, but apparently they’re not that interested.

But you have the big, bold leaves, and I have the pointillism version of texture and color and leaves. I have so many tiny-leaf things. All together they make a mass, like boxwood, but, well, the colors. The weeping pear, it’s silver. It looks like an olive tree until the leaves turn black and fall off, but that’s another story. [Laughter.]

Margaret: The Ligularia that you just mentioned, so to just describe it to people, how would you describe it?

Ken: Wow, that’s a good question.

Margaret: Fringy.

Mertensia virginica. Bluebells, Virginia bluebells. I have that, which has a blue flower, but I don’t really have much else that’s blue-blue. So yeah. So they didn’t really fit with my raucous color scheme, I guess. I have a lot of other weird colors, mostly.

So you said you have a lot of little things and more pointillist and so forth, so some examples?

Ken: [Laughter.] Well, I guess about the tiniest is Arctic willow. Do you know that Salix?

Margaret: Yes.

Ken: And it’s very blue, but not blue flowers. The leaves are blue, and I trim that every spring before it leafs out, and then it just makes this cloud of silvery-blue. That’s a wonderful plant.

Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegata.’

Margaret: Whatever that means. [Laughter.]

Ken: It’s got thorns, but they’re like maple leaves almost. They’re five-lobed, very fine texture, I guess inch and a half across, and it just covers itself in these beautiful variegated leaves, with a lot of variety.

Margaret: It can even be trained up a wall or as a, what do you call it—an espalier flat.

Ken: Oh, that’s a good idea.

Margaret: Yeah, it’s great against a dark wall or something.

So, leaves: wanting the leaves of something and wanting them maybe… There’s a lot of trees that have beautiful leaves or large shrubs that have beautiful leaves, but if we want to bring that foliage down to more at the garden level, not up high, do you grow any cutback shrubs or tree-ish like things that you cut back and keep smaller, so that you have the foliage on new shoots?

Ken: I do. I have a Catalpa that I cut back. I have Paulownia, but that’s a totally different, although talk about big and bold. Do you know Paulownia?

Margaret: Yeah.

Ken: So I have a Paulownia that’s probably 15 years old, and every year in the spring, I cut it to about four inches and it produces a juvenile shoots with leaves almost 2 feet across and it goes up 15 feet or so. It goes to the second story of the house, easily, and people stop and say, “Where’d you get that sunflower?” I say, “It’s not a sunflower.” And it’s a bad weed.

Margaret: It’s a terrible weed. It’s a tree.

Ken: It’s a tree.

Margaret: People may have seen it along the highways. It has beautiful purple-ish flowers and so-

Ken: Not if you cut it back.

Margaret: Right. So you’re growing it in the way that it’s not invasive, because you’re growing it as a cutback shrub. And the Catalpa, would that have big leaves, too, at an early age?

Ken: Yeah, not as big. And the one I have is gold. I guess the leaves are just under a foot across, and they’re heart-shaped leaves. After we end talking to each other, I’m going to think of 40 things that I cut back for that effect.

Margaret: Right, because I don’t, really, I don’t do that so much, and I keep thinking, “Why don’t I do that?” Because in great gardens that I visited, that’s always a feature of, again, a way to bring the great leaves from a tree that would be 30 feet up in the air, to bring them down to the garden level, and often at a larger size.

Ken: I don’t want to put you on the spot, but can you think of a couple of things that you might do that too, or want to or have-

Margaret: Well, the two that you just said were ones I wondered about that—the Catalpa, especially, because I see catalpas around here. I know they’d work. I see them as trees.

Ken: And I cut back that willow that we talked about, but you have to be sure that the plant you’re cutting back has dormant buds, because you could cut back the wrong plant, and that would be it, so you wouldn’t want that. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Right. But I think that the expression in traditional horticulture was, “Cutback shrubs,” or, “Growing something as a cutback shrub,” so I think if we look that up, we’re going to get a good list. People, if they want to investigate for their area, that would be the expression I think, is cutback shrubs, right?

Ken: Yeah, or a cutback.

Margaret: Right. A cutback. Right, right.

Ken: You can call it stooling. It has a lot of names. People used to cut back things like willows to make firewood because they harvest it from plants that had endless dormant buds. They would cut them back, harvest the twigs in two years and cut them back again and just have wood.

Margaret: Right. Or to make a fence or to use for-

Ken: For wattle.

Margaret: Right. Right. Another kind of, besides the bold plants, one of the other things that I’m particularly interested in in foliage is at the beginning of the season-

Ken: Ooh.

Margaret: Oh, you know what I’m going to say. The ones that come up, these unearthly-

Ken: Red.

Margaret: …colors like reddish and bluish and purplish, “not green,” as I say, plants that emerge not green.

Ken: So you’re going to tell me what that is. It’s something like “acannocyanins” or something.

Margaret: Anthocyanins are the pigment.

Ken: Anthocyanins, oh, I was close.

Margaret: So not chlorophyll, but anthocyanins. And we think of those, those blue and red pigments as fall colors. When the chlorophyll fades, we see those, but in some plants, they have it early in the season, maybe because it tastes bad. And so it’s a way to prevent predation by herbivorous animals and insects, maybe, that’s one of the theories.

Ken: I thought it was an antifreeze.

Margaret: Yeah. I don’t know. I know there’s various things that it may do. It help may help to absorb more light during the short, leafless season in the canopy above, blah, blah, blah. But whatever, I’ve read a million research papers on it. But some peonies have that, Jeffersonia, the twinleaf, a native wildflower. Bleeding hearts even have it. I’m just interested in that as, in other words, to enjoy the foliage at ground level when the garden is awakening as an extra show from things.

Ken: Well, we’re talking about three seasons, certainly.

Margaret: Yeah, yeah. Any new acquisitions?

Cotinus ‘Grace’ [above].

Margaret: Oh, yes.

Ken: All the Cotinus you can cut back. What are they called, Cotinus? I’m terrible-

Margaret: Smoke tree.

Ken: Smokebush.

Margaret: Smokebush.

Ken: Well, ‘Grace’ is a hybrid between the European and the American and it has big, iridescent leaves, and that’s a great cutback and it just shoots up.

And I think some of my favorite variegated plants, I love the Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Axminster Gold.’ Do you know that plant?

Margaret: You’re coming up with some Latin stuff goin’ on here today [laughter].

Ken: It’s comfrey.

Margaret: Yeah, Symphytum is comfrey. Yeah, yeah.

Ken: Right. And you know the plant that we both like and have trouble saying, do you know which one I mean? The Syneilesis [photo, top of page].

Margaret: Yeah.

Ken: And there’s two of them. There’s aconitifolia, which I think is the better one. There’s three, because there’s a hybrid, and palmatum or something is the other one, but aconitifolia, which means it has foliage like an Aconitum, and what’s that, monkshood?

Margaret: Yes.

Ken: So that’s almost indescribable, and it’s in the daisy family, which is bizarre, to say the least.

Margaret: That’s a real “it” plant right now. Syneilesis or however we say it. So it’s S-Y-N-E-I-L-E-S-I-S, Syneileisis, And it’s really hot, hot, hot right now.

Ken: I saw that plant probably 20 years ago when it was first discovered—“discovered,” brought from China—James Waddick, Dr. Waddick brought it and he was calling it rabbit umbrellas, but I don’t think that’s what they call it anymore.

rodgersia-podophyllaSalix eleagnos, which is a silver, long, a very linear, thin leaf, and I’ve let it grow into a tree, so it’s a very unusual one. So that’s a big silver mound.

Ken: I love that plant, and why did they change it’s name? Rosmarinifolia or whatever it was, or rosmarinas, that was the perfect name. It looks like rosemary.

Margaret: It looks like a giant rosemary bush.

Artemisia ‘Silver King’ [above], that does quite O.K. in the shade and it’s not a monster in the shade, and I have a terrific Pulmonaria, a lungwort, no one calls it that. Pulmonaria ‘Majeste,’ and the leaves are really silver. And if you’ve ever grown that plant, any of those plants, after they bloom with, again, blue flowers, some of them—there’s pink and there’s white—you can cut that plant back to about 2 or 3 inches, 2 inches, and it’ll flush all new growth and you’ll have the beautiful foliage again.

Margaret: Yeah, well Ken, we could obviously go on for three or four days talking about leaves.

Ken: Easily.

Margaret: Because we’re totally leaf-mad, but-

Ken: Do we have to leave leaves?

Margaret: We have to leave, oh boy, here he goes again, folks, with the—oh boy—the jokes. [Laughter.] Yeah, so on that note, I’ll hang up on you. Nice to speak to you. Thank you so much.

Ken: Thank you.

Margaret: All right.

Ken: I’ve got to post these pictures.

Margaret: O.K., talk to you soon.

enter to win ‘the new shade garden’

cover New Shade copy 3Ken Druse’s “The New Shade Garden” to share with one lucky reader. All you have to do is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page (after the last reader comment):

What are some of your favorite foliage plants of all, and why?

Feeling shy, or have no answer? Just say, “Count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but an answer is better. I’ll pick a winner U.S. or Canada) after entries closed at midnight Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Good luck to all

(All photos except rhubarb, Astilboides, Rodgersia, Petasites, Ligularia copyright Ken Druse, used with permission. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon links may yield a small commission.)

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