Fantastic Foliage for Summer

by | May 18, 2021

As we become more confident in our ability to create beautiful combination plantings in our gardens and patio containers, foliage plants tend to play a great role both to complement and contrast the floral colour. Interesting and colourful foliage often adds the ‘pop’ element that takes our plantings to the next level.

Grasses thrive in warmer summer temperatures, and they can contribute tremendous value to our colour schemes. Purple fountain grass is, by far, the most popular focal plant today. Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ (zone 9), with its dark burgundy foliage and dancing bunny tail plumes, provides interest all summer long. The combination of ‘Rubrum’ with hot pink plants, especially petunias, creates the magic that turns heads.  

For shade alternatives, coleus is one of the most underused options. Hot lime foliage plants are, perhaps, the most vibrant and becoming very popular because they light up darker corners. Once acclimatized, coleus will tolerate quite sunny areas, not just the sun lovers, but most varieties. The tawny coloured varieties are sneaking into second place with me because they are not only an ‘in’ colour, but they also blend well with yellow, peach and salmon coloured flowers. All look great with hot pink New Guinea impatiens. Magnificent show-stopper ‘Kong’ coleus (growing 20” or 50cm wide) make quite a statement in a shade location. I like the ‘Kong’ salmon, pink, red and rose the best for their contrasting ability with whites, silvers and hot pinks.  


Millets. Yes ornamental millets (Pennisetum glaucum) have flair, and they are too often overlooked. These heat lovers grow up to 1 metre in height and sure catch your attention. My favourite is ‘Jade Princess’ with its hot lime foliage and oh-my-gosh long brown seed heads that look like bulrushes. For a rich burgundy, try ‘Purple Baron’ or ‘Purple Majesty’. 

For ornamental grasses, I have to say the summer ‘hottie’ is Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa). Two varieties, in particular, are outstanding. Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ (zone 6) is the most brilliant lime you’ll see in a grass, and H.m. ‘Aureola (zone 6) is just as magnificent having long narrow yellow leaves with a green stripe down the middle. Especially in darker shade, they add life and vibrancy both in ground beds and containers. My new favourite carex, C. oshimensis EverColor ‘Everillo’ with its evergreen lime foliage, is fabulous. With a touch of sun, its colour is a little more golden; in shade, it’s more lime coloured.  

Today, perhaps the most widely used foliage plants for a summer garden are the ornamental sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas). These vibrant heat lovers accent all the other plants beautifully and carry them through the hottest time of the year with grace and style. The brilliant chartreuse coloured varieties are the best sellers for hanging baskets, containers and even ground plantings, but the dark-leaf types are certainly picking up in popularity for the depth and drama they add! The ‘Caroline’ series comes in a wide range of colours, has serrated foliage and makes any combination shine. 

Cordyline Australis ‘Red Star’ is a rich burgundy dracaena that pops and is the very best compact variety, which is so useful in smaller pots. It’s an eye-catcher! ‘Torbay’ has striking yellow and green foliage that intensifies in hot sun to a deep gold with pink edges. 

All these varieties, and so many others too, are just the tip of the iceberg for foliage accents. They make wonderful hot summer displays, are widely available and can be planted even in very warm weather. Summer patios and gardens can be enhanced and enjoyed far more with any or all of these gems.  


Additional foliage plants that will add great interest to your container or hanging basket plantings: 


  • Plectranthus 
  • Strobilanthes 
  • Setcreasea
  • Alternanthera 
  • Iresine 
  • Helichrysum
  • Dichondra 
  • Lysimachia ‘Creeping Jenny’