Home & Garden Design
Publication Date: Wednesday, January 19, 2006

Color without annuals
Mix in some sleeping beauties to get year-round show

text and photos by Janet Bell, APLD

The most frequent request I receive as a landscape designer is to provide a lot of color in the garden with minimum maintenance. While there is not a magic-wand solution to this issue, I have found a lot of reliable plants that provide more interesting color than the traditional annual bed.


The maroon foliage of Heuchera sanguineum, with 12- to 24-inch flower stalks, adds color, even without blooms.

Garden maintenance is a subject for another time. However, it is important to say that many plants that provide drama and color during one to two seasons of the year have down time during the others. These plants are still worth it and can be inter-planted with lower-maintenance background shrubs to provide an interesting and colorful garden throughout the year.

In late winter/early spring, ground covers include a variety of Forget-Me-Nots: Myosotis sylvatica, Cynoglossum amabile and Omphalodes cappadocica for blues/pale purple. Some varieties seed themselves and then die back until next year. Veronica 'Georgia Blue,' 'Waterperry Blue,' 'Goodness Grows' and other varieties are ground-cover plants providing bright blue flowers.


For summer color, the prolific rosa 'ballerina' offers pale pink single flowers, and grows to about 4 feet tall.

Helleborus orientalis, a low-growing perennial, has very delicate white, pink or rose flowers and interesting foliage throughout the rest of the year. Tall-growing shrubs include Chaenomeles spp., flowering quince -- the earliest of flowers blooming dramatically on bare stems in a variety of colors from white to red; Magnolia stellata (Star magnolia) with a bright white flower; and Ceanothus (California lilac) with flowers ranging from white to deep blue. Some Ceanothus species are more garden tolerant (for example, variety 'Ray Hartman') and some have a shorter life span if they are in a watered garden environment.

Springtime color includes a variety of low-growing plants, such as Geranium varieties including 'Biokovo,' sanguineum 'Striatum,' x riversleaianum 'Russell Prichard' and 'Mavis Simpson,' renardii and many others that bloom from spring through the summer.


Among the taller springtime plants is Weigela florida, with its arching branches and rosy or light-pink flowers and variegated leaves.

Heuchera maxima and varieties of H. sanguineum, including maroon foliage types such as 'Chocolate Ruffles,' provide clumping foliage with 12 to 24-inch flower stalks. Bearded irises have large blossoms and come in a variety of colors. Taller plants include Kolkwitzia amabilis (Beauty Bush), which is difficult to find, but worth it; Viburnum opulus 'Roseum,' (Snowball bush), my personal favorite with its dramatic blooms, attractive foliage and great fall color; and Weigela florida, which has arching branches and comes with either a rosy flower or a light pink flower and variegated leaves, as well as a number of new smaller hybrids.

In early summer, the edge of the bed can be filled with: Campanula poscharskyana with a blue or white bell flower (these should start blooming in the late spring); Dianthus species (my favorites are the lower-growing, single-flower types) with flowers in white to pink to rose; Salvia sinaloensis (dark foliage with bright blue flower); and Origanum rotundifolium 'Kent Beauty,' with its unusual shell-type pink flower.

Summer-blooming perennials in the 24 to 36-inch range include Verbascum chaixii hybrids; Penstemon spp. including 'Evelyn,' 'Midnight,' 'Holly's White' and 'Garnet;' Sedum 'Autumn Joy' has wide rosy flower heads; and Echinacea pupurea (coneflower) produces dramatic flowers of white or pink (as well as some new varieties). Phlox paniculata, with varieties from white to blue, provides dense color and Spirae 'Anthony Waterer' is a shrub with reddish pink flowers. And, for those who want a touch of the exotic, Anigozanthus flavidus, or Kangaroo Paw, has 18-inch grassy foliage with flowers that are up to 42 inches tall (there are also shorter varieties). 'Harmony' is a lemon yellow variety and others have flowers that are orange, red, maroon and green.

Taller plants (5 feet-plus) that provide great dramatic color for the summer include Tibouchina urvilleana (Princess flower), Hydrangea quercifolia (Oak leaf Hydrangea) and Hibiscus syriacus 'Diana' (white flower).

Summer color cannot be discussed without mention of shrub roses that can provide color through the growing season. "Carpet" roses come in all colors and grow to about 1 feet tall x 2 feet wide and are dependable for the front of beds. Rosa 'Ballerina' has pale pink single flowers and Rosa 'Marjorie Fair' has fuchsia-colored flowers with white centers; both grow to about 4 feet x 4 feet and bloom prolifically.

Most of the above plants will bloom through the fall with proper care.

During late summer to autumn, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides provides a bright blue flowering ground cover. Anenome japonica provides tall flower stalks (to 4 feet) in white ('Honorine Jobert'), pink or rose, from an 18-inch foliage clump. This plant, under certain conditions, will expand with underground roots, so be sure it has plenty of room, as it has been known to want to take over a bed.

I have only had room here to offer a small number of these flowering giants. You will be rewarded greatly by expanding your garden's plant palette. Experiment!

Some sources for great plants: www.forestfarm.com; www.highcountrygardens.com; www.anniesannuals.com

Janet Bell, APLD, is the owner of Janet Bell & Associates, a Menlo Park landscape design/construction/maintenance firm. She can be contacted at (650) 328-3400 or jbgarden@pacbell.net.