The Variegation Sensation

Knautia 'Thunder & Lightening' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Knautia ‘Thunder & Lightening’ (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

It may not be time to plant yet, but it is the opportune time to start planning.  Are there a few bare spots you’re looking to fill?  Maybe an area that needs a little revamping? Or, perhaps there was a mole/vole party that has created a new vacancy. You can finally start perusing through those piles of plant catalogs with a vengeance, and compile your lists.  You know, the list categorized by the “must haves”, the “wish I could have” and the “if I win the lottery, I can have.” I always have at least a few dreamy wish plants and lottery picks, just in case of a windfall.  In the meantime, let’s narrow down your “must haves” to include some spicy foliaged specimens.

Caryopteris 'Snow Fairy' with Eupatorium 'Chocolate' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Caryopteris ‘Snow Fairy’ with Eupatorium ‘Chocolate’ (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Now that you’re thinking about your garden, (and after reviewing last year’s garden pix), you’re open and receptive to ideas and inspiration for livening up the format.  Realizing that most times it’s the plant’s vegetation carrying the responsibility of a colorful and balanced scene; you quickly understand that the choices you make for selection and placement will determine how exciting your garden will look through the seasons.  I always incorporate dark burgundy and vibrant chartreuse foliaged plants and shrubs throughout the gardens, but my favorite eye-catching plants are the ones with variegation.  Mottled, edged, streaked or splashed-those cheerful multi-colored leaves create a spot light in any area they’re planted, which is why variegated foliage is a big part of my design concept.

Phlox 'Norah Leigh' with Cotinus in A Garden For All by Kathy diemer

Phlox ‘Norah Leigh’ with Cotinus (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

For plants, variegation runs the gamut from shade loving groundcovers to sun worshipping giants.  The shade darling, Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy,’ has stunning silver highlights that literally glow in the dark (plant along a shady pathway, and forget the night lights), while its cousin ‘Anne Greenway’s’ golden accents brighten the shadiest understory.  Hostas are brimming with opportunities; ‘Fire & Ice’ is a fragrant beauty with leaves splashed in vibrant white, and the larger ‘Great Expectations’ will fulfill yours with its three foot diameter of golden highlights.  For the sunnier spots, I adore Knautia ‘Thunder & Lightening’, which has lush frosty foliage and dazzling raspberry flowers hovering above.  The taller, sweetly scented Phlox paniculata ‘Norah Leigh’ will woo you with her fragrant pink blooms and creamy foliage, and she’s simply stunning parked next to a dark leaved gentleman like Cotinus coggygria (smoke bush).

Euonymus 'Variegatus' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Euonymus ‘Variegatus’ (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Euonymus ‘Variegatus’ and friends are perfect for part shade or sunny settings, and stay evergreen through the winter with mild protection.  Surround them with other plants and shrubs and they will shine enthusiastically all year long.  Euonymus come in mounding shapes (easily pruned to maintain) or trailing forms, which work wonderfully for climbing walls or trailing down inclines.  The deer don’t like them either.  And, speaking of deer resistance, I grow a delightfully showy deciduous shrub with the brightest white variegation on tiny leaves-but boy is this thing stinky.  Yes, Caryopteris ‘Snow Fairy’ will die down in winter, but bounds back faithfully year after year in a mass of frothy ivory foliage.  Beautiful when paired with a darker leaved companion (like Eupatorium ‘Chocolate’), which only assists in showing off the bright display.

Liquidambar styraciflua 'Variegata' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Variegata’ (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Variegation works well with trees, such as sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Variegata’, a relatively new introduction to my landscape.  Purchased from Broken Arrow Nursery in early April a few years back, it wasn’t even leafed out at the time.  Intrigued by the description: “An eye-catching cultivar with unique yellow streaked and spotted foliage.  Show stopping pink and scarlet, two-toned fall color completes the package.” I was unable to resist, and am quite happy that I didn’t.  Perhaps you’ll consider adding a few variegated members to your plant palette this year as well . . . Have fun!


  1. I am an unapologetic foliage nut and Phlox ‘Norah Leigh’ is one of my favorite plants. In fact I just transplanted some into a very visible spot in my patio garden. A couple of years ago I discovered another equally vigorous variegated Phlox with clean foliage that holds up all season called ‘Shock Wave’. Flowers are deep pink and foliage is yellow and green. I’m on the hunt for more of those right now as well as another Caryopteris ‘Snow Fairy’ to replace one that has inexplicably faded away.

    Unfortunately I had no luck with Knautia ‘Thunder and Lightning’ as well as the fairly new green and white Caryopteris ‘White Surprise’ but liked both enough to give them another chance. Broken Arrow here I come!

    • Totally agree about ‘Norah Leigh’, variegated, fragrant and a very long life as well. I also had the same bad luck with Knautia ‘Thunder & Lightning’, but knautia tends to be finicky in my garden as a rule. I may purchase a few more this year and try again. Thanks for the tip on ‘Shock Wave’, I’ll see if I can find one-as I’m sure I can make a spot for it! And thanks for writing. Happy Spring!

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