Colorful Foliage Container Garden Ideas

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Though a container overflowing with blooms is undeniably beautiful, there are numerous plants with foliage so colorful and striking, you won’t miss the flowers at all.

When leaves take center stage in your containers, you don’t have to worry about lengthy stretches without color. The interest stays constant, and there are plants with foliage in just about every color of the rainbow. Plus, no spent flowers to deadhead, or temperamental buds to pamper. You can create a striking display with just foliage plants, or combine them with flowering beauties for contrast.

Coleus

The undisputed king of colorful foliage, you can find coleus in an astounding range of solid and variegated tones, including bright orange, hot pink, brown, yellow, burgundy, purple, magenta and every shade of green. The only shade lacking is a true blue. Leaves can be long and thin, frilly edged, curly or pointy-tipped with a rounded base. There are dwarf coleuses that reach eight inches high, and tall plants that can pass three feet.

Though still usually labeled as “Coleus” in nurseries, the correct botanical name for the plant is now Solenostemon scutellarioides. There are many named cultivars available, and new ones appear every year. Though technically perennials, coleus are quite tender, and will not survive frosty weather. They prefer a shade to partial shade location, though some newer varieties can tolerate sunnier spots. None will do well in full, intense sun or heat, so keep them in a protected area.

Coleus is beautiful in a container on their own, or combined with smaller, trailing plants to fill in the edges. You can encourage bushier growth by pinching out the top sets of leaves from each stem. Coleus will produce spires of purple flowers in the spring or summer, but many gardeners prefer to remove these.

Polka Dot Plant

These cheerful plants are often grown as houseplants, but they are very happy to brighten up your outdoor pots too, as long as you keep them in a location that is protected from intense sun. Botanically named Hypoestes phyllostachya, polka dot plants have deep green leaves heavily freckled with pink, red, white or silver.

Hypoestes are tender perennials, so unless you live in the warmest gardening zones, don’t expect them to survive the winter. They look beautiful for much of the year, however, with a clumping form that can reach 12 to 18 inches tall. If your plants get leggy, just trim them back to encourage bushier growth. Polka dot plant will often shoot up spires of small, purple flowers, but it’s best to prune those away, as they encourage leggy growth.

Polka dot plants look great combined with impatiens or wax begonias, or mixed in with coleus. Keep them moist, and feed with a weak fertilizer during the spring as new growth takes off.

Caladium

Caladiums grow from a tuber, and are usually an annual when grown outdoors. They are also a popular houseplant. They are quite tropical looking, with large, heart-shaped leaves in a wide range of patterns; everything from colored veins to borders to polka dots to blotches. Colors include white, silver, pink and red, with lime or deep green contrast.

Caladiums like warm temperatures, but not full sun. They do well in a spot with morning sun, but afternoon shade. Don’t keep them in a fully shaded location, or the colors will tend to fade. Like many plants with colorful foliage, caladiums are tropical and will not survive frost.

Most varieties will grow to between 12 and 30 inches tall, with gently waving leaves that look very graceful. Caladium is dramatic enough to make a statement on its own, but also looks good combined with lower-growing plants such as begonias and impatiens, which like similar growing conditions.

Sweet Potato Vine

If you need a colorful trailer for the edges of your pot, sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) is a very hardy, fast growing choice. The height is usually less than one foot, but the plant can trail to five feet long. Cut it back if it starts to take over your porch.

Sweet potato vine comes in several colors, including purplish black, purple, bronze, burnt orange, lime green and a tricolor with pink, white and green. All do well in full sun to partial shade, and Ipomoea is very heat tolerant. It will die when frost comes, so consider it an annual.

Though related to the sweet potato grown for eating, ornamental sweet potatoes have been bred for colorful foliage, and are edible, but not tasty. They look great in a container with any taller plants, but are quite aggressive and can choke out other plants if you don’t keep them trimmed back.

Rex Begonias

With cultivar names like “Escargot,” “Cowardly Lion,” “Stained Glass” and “Fireworks,” you know the rex begonia must be something special. Grown for the fantastic foliage, not flowers, rex begonias have a wide range of leaf shapes, patterns and colors. Swirls, blotches, dots and stripes come in every shade of pink, brown, yellow, lavender, silver and burgundy.

Rex begonias are often grown indoors, but will thrive in a container outside in a shady, humid location. Bring it indoors if you want the plant to survive the winter. They will quickly rot if kept in soggy soil, but need to be kept moist. Most varieties grow in a mounding pattern, reaching one to two feet tall and equally wide.

With such a dramatic appearance, rex begonias look best when they are the star of their own container. If you want to combine them with other plants, try mondo grass, wishbone flower or dichondra.

If you want to plant something different from your usual pots of flowers, try some plants grown for their beautiful, colorful foliage. You’ll never miss the blooms once you have these striking plants in your garden.

Last Updated: October 10, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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