The Mountain Gardener: Different plants for different gardens and personalities
by Jan Nelson
Jul 10, 2014 | 1241 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Gardens have different personalities.

Some gardens mimic nature with plants that attract birds, butterflies, and other wildlife and look a bit wild. Some are neat and tidy, with perennials lined up evenly along pathways and clipped hedges under the windows.

All gardens are a reflection of their owners.

When I visit a garden to help the owner change, add, or “take the garden to the next level,” I know which ideas will resonate with that person and which will just not work for them. Sometimes it’s easier for someone looking at a garden for the first time to visualize what’s needed.

Regardless of your style, I often recommend one simple solution to update a garden: Many gardens end up with too many small-leafed plants.

Nature is the master at this survival strategy. Small leaves are often more efficient at retaining water in drought conditions.

When all your leaves are the same size, however, the garden gets boring.

Using large, bold, architectural plants allows the eye to rest on a focal point rather than try to take in everything at once, scanning back and forth.

Plants, like people, come in all sizes and shapes and so do their leaves. Some have huge and dramatic leaves, while others are just showy and outsized enough to work well when viewed up-close or at ground level.

Some plants look tropical and others are right at home in the redwood understory. Some require regular water while others are able to withstand some drought. There’s a bold, breathtaking plant for every garden.

Because they reflect light, glossy leaves look even larger than they are. Make those leaves variegated or wavy with a dimpled texture and the effect is even more striking.

Here are a few large-leafed plants that work well in our area.

In partial shade, try Fatsia japonica also called Japanese aralia. It’s deer-resistant with bold foliage that looks tropical, but still at home in the forest.

Philodendron selloum with its huge, glossy leaves is also easy to grow. Oakleaf hydrangeas have it all: Bold foliage that turns red in fall as well as huge white flower clusters in summer.

Tasmanian tree ferns are hardier in our winters than the Australian variety and are about as dramatic a plant as you will find. Bear’s Breech require only moderate water and serve well as a focal point in the garden.

In my own garden, I’m finding the chartreuse leaves of Hosta “Sum and Substance” can take more sun than I originally thought.

The deer walk right by their thick, dimpled leaves which is a definite plus. I like all hostas for their bold leaves whether variegated, glossy or wavy.

At ground level, some of my favorite large-leafed perennials that require only moderate water include hellebore, aspidistra, bergenia, coral bells, and the dry-shade California native wild ginger or asarum caudatum.

If your garden is more in the sun, you can add pizzazz by planting something with large leaves in front of those tall ceanothus, manzanita and toyon.

Matilija poppy is a show-stopper if you have room for it. Rhubarb, windmill palm, smoke bush and Western redbud also have huge leaves as do canna lily, banana, sago palm, loquat and angel’s trumpet.

These are just a few of the many plants with big leaves that work magic in gardens around here.

Adding plants with dramatic foliage instantly makes-over the garden.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. E-mail her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures


Comments-icon Post a Comment
No Comments Yet

We encourage your online comments in this public forum, but please keep them respectful and constructive. This is not a forum for personal attacks, libelous statements, profanity or racist slurs. Readers may report such inappropriate comments by e-mailing the editor at