BY MID-OCTOBER, most summer blossoms are well and truly spent. Yet, by focusing on foliage over flowers, gardeners can keep the show going through the months ahead. Winding up the autumn round of Seattle Grows, the botanical party game (that I made up), I reached out to Karen Chapman who, along with Christina Salwitz, wrote the book “Gardening with Foliage First” (Timber Press, 2017). 

Do you ever find yourself eagerly waiting for something to start blooming only to be let down when flowering so quickly passes? It happens to most of us. Instead, the foliage-forward designer recommends building our gardens around a framework of evergreen and deciduous foliage, then completing the picture with flowering perennials and shrubs.

Chapman describes her personal garden as a “full-on color party” that begins with fresh growth in early spring and extends through the “fiery embers of fall,” when form and texture take over. I asked for a list of her favorite “foliage-first” plants for the fall and winter garden. 

“Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii) is my favorite!” Chapman exclaims. Starry blue spring blossoms on this hardy perennial are lovely, but this plant is all about its soft textural foliage — a rich green during the growing season that transitions to burnished gold in fall. 

For deciduous trees, Chapman favors Ruby Vase Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica ‘Ruby Vase’), paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and Heritage river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) for their burgundy, orange and golden fall foliage, respectively. Reaching beyond foliage, all three trees get seasonal bonus points for fabulous bark and winter form. 


When designing gardens, Chapman tempers fiery fall colors with shades of cool blue. “The contrast adds intensity to the hot colors,” she points out. Blue conifers, such as Blue Star juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’) or white fir (Abies concolor), planted among deciduous trees and shrubs extend interest and provide “a place for the eye to rest amid the flames.” 

It’s a common misconception that evergreen means always green. “Yawn,” Chapman remarks. “I love to incorporate evergreen plants that change color for seasonal interest.” Like when new foliage on Gulf Stream heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Gulf Stream’) emerges scarlet red in spring, ripens to blue green in summer, then shifts back to fiery red and orange as temperatures drop in fall.

Chilling temperatures are a determining factor in other seasonal foliage changes as well. Variegated wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Variegatus’) takes on pink tints, and Rainbow drooping fetterbush (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’) “is a true chameleon, transitioning from marbled green and cream to almost entirely deep red.” Rheingold arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’), a plump, mounding conifer with golden needles, turns coppery bronze in winter. 

Several conifers, such as Golden Spreader fir (Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’) and Chief Joseph lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Chief Joseph’), intensify their gold foliage in winter. “Anything that suggests sunlight during our gray winters is a good thing,” Chapman observes. To economize, the designer recommends purchasing smaller plants to include in container compositions. After a few seasons, when the plants have reached landscape size, you can transplant them into the garden. 

Speaking of gold, several varieties of yellow-twigged dogwood gleam in winter, especially when planted en masse against a background of — wait for it — dark green foliage.