Star Gardener: The Challenge of Gold

The more color the better
Gold makes purples “pop” and harmonizes well with blues, as it does in this combination of tradescantia and catmint. Durell Godfrey

Plants with gold foliage have lots of curb appeal and often prove irresistible. Once they are home, however, they can be a challenge to the gardener. Are you looking to make a statement or create harmony with a team player?

Containers are easy, and flower beds, too. Generally, the more color the better. They are both more forgiving than the broader landscape, where trees and shrubs hold sway. When gold and chartreuse foliage is not used judiciously, all too easily the result is a disjointed collection of freaks rather than a garden.

I’ve developed a few guidelines for myself on working with gold. Monochromatic combinations can bring sunniness, depth, and even calm to a planting; varying shades and textures adds interest. Gold sizzles with red and orange; it makes purples pop and harmonizes well with blues and deep, saturated pinks. When I need to tone it down to avoid overwhelming an area, I surround it with lots of green.   
By their very nature, containers make a statement. Gold foliage in containers can brighten up the shadiest location. This spring I used the largest and brightest gold coleus I could find and in the front added the new, evergreen, cascading all-gold carex, C. oshimensis Everillo. That would have been fine, but a new heucherella with gold leaves and maroon veins was left over at the plant sale, and I couldn’t resist tucking it in to the side of the container to tie the textures together.

A host of shade-loving gold grasses and carexes and heucheras with gold leaves are readily available and any would work. Once you are finished with the container the grasses and heucheras can be planted in the garden.

A bright-red coleus has its own container to the rear of the golden pot.  Truth be told, it lends a welcome air of excitement.

One of my favorite plant combinations this season is the well-behaved gold-net Japanese honeysuckle and vigorous and floriferous purple clematis, C. viticella Etoile Violette. Planted on a south-facing wall, they grow over a green vine that throws the purple and gold into strong relief. The honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica Aureoreticulata, also makes a nice rambling groundcover, which is the way a friend grows it. Joy Creek Nursery, an excellent grower in Oregon, offers it through mail order. The clematis is cut back to about a foot above ground every spring; the honeysuckle is pruned every few years.

At one point the idea of growing the East Coast native spiderwort, Tradescantia, would have been preposterous, but the golden-leaved cultivar Blue & Gold (a k a Sweet Kate) has turned me into a believer. The foliage glows in full sun or partial shade. It is evergreen in my garden and provides a useful bit of color in the winter. Equally good as a container plant or in the garden, it is ravishing in the sun with deep-blue catmints and purple-flowered salvias.  In a partially shaded area, Blue & Gold would combine well with purple-hued heucheras, gold variegated ivies like Buttercup, or just plain green groundcovers.

During midsummer the shady parts of my garden mostly revert to green.  This is when a common, easily found groundcover more than holds its own in sun or shade. Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia Aurea, forms a pool of molten gold under a golden full-moon maple, Acer shirasawanum Aureum; in deep shade it is bright chartreuse, interweaving with the small dark green leaf of the native partridge berry, Mitchella repens, an unplanned but satisfying partnership. It would be equally effective with the tiny, dark-green leaves of Euonymus Kewensis. 

With the advent of Louie, who is hell on voles and moles, I’ve indulged in hostas. Repetition, especially of color, is a classic design technique to draw the viewer through the garden. Gold and gold-variegated hostas do this superbly well in shady and transitional spaces. Zounds, introduced in the late l980s by the renowned Long Island hosta breeder Paul Aden, is one of the best performing large gold hostas. Unlike Sum and Substance, whose gigantic size makes it a soloist, Zounds is an ensemble player.

I like buying hostas from Long Island’s Home of Hosta in Medford. Besides being a good grower, the display beds show what mature plants look like and what the best color combinations are. Phone first to make an appointment.

During the mid-June Much Ado about Madoo festivities, Broken Arrow Nursery from Hamden, Conn., brought a load of gold and yellow foliage plants. Two perennials were new to me: Peucedanum ostruthium Daphnis (unfortunately it has no common name), a shade-loving plant, and Filipendula ulmaria Aurea, for full sun to partial shade. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t buy the meadowsweet, but am experimenting with the peucedanum, which has dark green and gold variegated foliage. It is said to be a recent introduction from France, forming a foot-high clump of foliage with white flowers similar to Queen Anne’s lace.

The filipendula should be grown as an accent plant for its golden foliage, rather than its flowers. Some recommend removing the flower stalks while they are still in bud, as with other foliage plants. After seeing combinations of gold, red, and orange perennials used to grand effect in England last September, I’m experimenting in a small way with some in my own garden, and the filipendula would have been perfect in the mix.

Helenium Moerheim Beauty has just begun flowering in coppery red. Two orange geums, Totally Tangerine and Alabama Slammer, haven’t budded up yet. The color combinations might or might not work in our climate and light. It remains to be seen.

Go for gold in the garden. Be venturesome. Experiment. Plants in containers and perennials in the garden are easy to move. Keep trying until you like the result.

Gold-netted honeysuckle and purple clematis grow over a green vine that throws the purple and gold into strong relief. Abby Jane Brody Photos