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Look on The Dark Side to Create A Stylish Garden!

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Michelle Heather

Have you ever considered using a range of dark-leaved or almost black flowering plants in your garden to add a ‘wow’ to your outdoor space? Many years ago, I designed a black and white border for a client and the finished result looked fantastic. In this article, I will give you a few ideas on what type of plants to put in to create the dark element to your planting scheme. Many of the recommended plants will have deep purple or very dark red leaves and petals, but overall will create an illusion of a stylish, almost black planting scheme.

If you have a large garden and are looking for a tree with fabulous leaf colour, Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ is one to consider. It will, over time, grow to 8m high with a similar spread. The heart-shaped leaves have rich autumnal colours and in spring, bright-pink flowers appear in clusters before the leaves appear.

To create a backdrop to a large border, particularly if you have a white painted wall behind, Phyllostachys ‘Nigra’ (black bamboo) will grow to a height of 5m with an ultimate spread of 3m sometimes more if the roots are not contained by a rigid non-perishable barrier. Over time as the canes mature, they turn a polished ebony colour with very dark green leaves. They grow happily in sun or semi-shade but need a humus rich, moist but well drained soil. Old canes should be removed every couple of years in early spring.

Almost a total contrast in size, is the black, grass-like Ophiopagan planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ (black lily turf) which grows to a height of 20cm by a spread of 30cm. This clump-forming evergreen perennial has inky purple almost black leaves and produces pale mauve flower spikes in summer. This unusual and reliable plant will grow happily in gravel or in tubs in sun or shade.

Dark leaf shrubs worth considering are Sambucas nigra f. porphyrophylla‘Eva’/’Black Lace’. A member of the Elder family, ‘Eva’ is a deciduous shrub that grows up to 3m with a similar spread. It has purplish-black foliage with a lacy effect from spring to autumn together with an abundance of pinkish flowers in summer. You can give this shrub a hard prune in mid-spring to reduce its size, but this may be to the detriment of the flowers.

Another favourite deciduous foliage shrub with darkish purple leaves is Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’. It grows to an ultimate height and spread of 2.5m but is a good back of border structural plant with clusters of small white, pink-tinged flowers in summer.

You cannot plant a black border without adding some almost black deep maroon tulips to the scheme. Recommended varieties available in the UK are: ‘Queen of Night’ and a double version ‘Black Hero’. Planting these in large groups or swathes will create drama to your spring garden.

There are several black flowering annuals and perennials for you to use amongst your planting. If you are planting up a window box or tub to bloom from spring through summer, Pansy ‘Black Moon’ is one to consider. However, for autumn and winter flowering, Viola ‘Sorbet Black Delight’ is one to use. If you regularly keep your pansies and violas dead-headed and watered, even throughout the winter unless it is freezing, they will keep on blooming.

For late winter to spring flowering perennials, there are various varieties of Hellebores which have black flowers such as ‘Harvington Black’ and ‘Black Swan’. Hellebores are best grown in dappled shade in moist, humus rich soil that does not dry out in summer or get water-logged in winter. Unlike other Hellebore varieties, ‘Black Swan’ – with its dark velvety petals and contrasting pure white stamens – holds its jet-black blooms upwards for all to see.

As the year progresses, Aquilegia ‘Black Barlow’ has rich deep purple, almost black petals double-flowers from June to July. These dainty plants look good in most gardens. Statuesque hollyhocks can add drama to your border if you select Alcea ‘Black Knight’ which grows to 1.8m tall. From June to August it bears almost black single to semi-double flowers. It likes sun to partial shade, best grown in groups and staked due to the weight of flowering stems and grows best in moist but well drained soil.

If you have a sunny garden, with well-drained soil, deep purple-black bearded iris such as ‘Superstition’ can provide a spectacular display in early to mid-summer. You need to plant the rhizomes so that they are exposed to the sun to encourage flowering. If you plant three separate plants in a triangle, this will ensure no other plants will grow over the rhizomes. You should also split and divide the rhizomes every three years. If you have moist, almost boggy soil, or are looking for plants to grow near a pond, you may like to plant moisture-loving Siberian iris chrysographes ‘black flowered’ iris which has very dark purple flowers that appear during May and June.

For autumn colour, consider planting Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’, often known as Cimicifuga ‘Brunette’ or Baneberry. Growing up to 1.5m tall by 1m wide, this perennial has upright, brownish-purple stems and foliage producing racemes of small, fragrant white flowers in early autumn. Unlike many plants, they will tolerate poorly drained clay soil but prefer to grow in semi-shade.

Dahlias planted in mid spring will give colour from mid-summer to the first frosts in late autumn. Although not black, the cactus spiked Dahlias ‘Chat Noir’, ‘Summer Night’ and ‘Rip City’ all give blooms of rich deep dark reddish purple with deep undertones and look stunning against other dark foliage. Alternatively opt for the dark leaved varieties which have blooms in a range of colours from orange, red to pink.

There are numerous other plants with dark leaves and blooms to look out for so do not be afraid of adding contrasting dark plants to your border, pots, or shrubbery. All are available from Oxfordshire garden centres, plant nurseries or online.

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