Julie Foster is a Gwinnett County Master Gardener and co-owner of Gardens By Design landscape design at gardens-bydesign.com.

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Variegated Plants
by Julie Foster    

Groupings of variegated iris add contrast in this late summer display.
Placing a variegated tree or shrub in a shade garden visually lightens the space.

Exclamation Points in the Garden

When I designed the perennial border in the garden of our first home, it was a process of trial and error. All the books I studied told me I should first create an evergreen “backbone” to provide year-round interest, and plant so that something of interest was blooming each season. Before planting, I spent hours pouring over plant catalogs and sketching designs.

At the end of the first year I was disappointed. The garden looked flat. When plants weren’t blooming, it was just a green mass. I had followed all the “rules” of design, yet it didn’t appeal to me. I decided to put away the books and plant what looked right to me.


Variegated iris and impatiens contrast with purple coral bells and creeping fig in this container garden.

The showy yellow foliage of sweet flag brings out the yellow margin of the hosta in this charming vignette.

The bold texture of variegated agave makes a sculptural centerpiece.

Following Your Instincts

I saw some beautiful variegated iris at the nursery and purchased enough to add three groupings of them in my border. Suddenly, the border popped. The iris acted like exclamation points in the garden. The green and white foliage of the iris drew my eye along the length of the perennial border, and the contrast of the variegation against the green of the other plants added depth to the planting.

I was so happy with the result that I decided to add more variegated foliage throughout the garden. I started with ‘Cabaret’ Miscanthus, an ornamental grass, in a bed across the yard. Its wide leaf with a broad white center stripe made a bold statement in my garden and visually tied the bed to my perennial border. I then added Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mariesii Variegata’. Its variegated foliage and beautiful blue lacecap flowers provided much needed light in my shade garden.

Even the addition of common variegated liriope helped add interest to my garden. Since all these plants had similar green and white variegation, they lent repetition and cohesiveness to the garden. The same result could have been achieved using plants with yellow and green variegation such as ‘Brigela’ weigela, ‘Pretoria’ canna and variegated sweet flag (Acorus).


Uses For Variegated Plants

The uses of variegated plants are many. Variegated hydrangea, hosta, sweet flag and Vinca minor can be used to lighten up shady spots in the garden. The paler portions of the leaves catch and reflect any light back to your eyes. For this reason, these plants are great in “evening gardens” that are most often seen after the sun goes down. Place them along a deck or at the edge of woods. As the sunlight fades, the green portion of the leaf gradually blends into the deepening darkness of the night. The variegation, however, seems to float.

In a landscape design or even a container garden, variegated plants are often used as the center of attention or as a focal point. They show off best when contrasted against a dark background. Whether planted against a mostly green hedge, or a larger backdrop of deciduous trees, some background is needed to properly display variegated trees and shrubs.

Variegation in plants is defined as the normal green portion of the plant leaf being replaced by white, cream, yellow or occasionally other colors, which may be in the form of blotches or stripes. The variegations can occur on the edge of the leaves (marginate variegation) or in the center of the leaf (medio variegation). Variegated plants that have neat, regular leaf margins of white or gold tend to be the most popular and readily available in nurseries.

Try some of these variegated plants to create interest in your garden. Use them sparingly where your garden needs a lift. Remember that a little variegation goes a long way.

Variegated Plants
Most Available In Nurseries

Trees and shrubs
Japanese holly

Perennials and Groundcovers

Coral bell
Japanese painted fern
Solomon’s seal
Strawberry begonia
Vinca minor




The variegated foliage of euonymus and ivy create a stunning focal point and tie into the variegated iris in the background of this garden.

This variegated dogwood creates a striking focal point as it stands out among the green foliage of other plants.




Posted: 12/21/11   RSS | Print


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Lark (Wisconsin) - 01/01/2012

Last Summer I purchased a small varigated agave and summered it outside in my Wisconsin garden, zone 5. It at least doubled in size in a few short months. Making sure I brought it in before a frost. Now, January, it has a spot in my south facing windows. The only draw back to this plant is it has WICKED THORNS on the end of each leaf. I do keep the thorns clipped off so my Grandkids don’t accidently bump into it. I am so anxious to use it as a LARGE specimen plant in a COBALT BLUE container. Happy Gardening 2012. Smiles, Lark

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