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Big-leaved plants

Go larger than privet for lush planting

The best two pieces of advice I’ve ever read about designing borders came from Beth Chatto’s books – if you want success, look at the size of your leaves. If there’s nothing bigger than a privet leaf, it will look bitty.

Actually, this quote wasn’t by Beth Chatto and I’m damned if I can find it, but hey-ho and bear with me.

The second – use verticals – see my vertical planting article. Both these ideas will make your border 3D – it will jump out and grab you. The eyes will pause at these ‘full-stop’ plants before carrying on to take in the rest.

I know it takes courage to introduce big-leaved plants, but be brave. Here’s my top 10 – all herbaceous perennials, apart from the Angelica and Verbascum, which are biennial:

Rheum palmatum (ornamental rhubarb): From a brown crown, purple leaves sprout, fading to dark green. A cream flower spike 8ft tall appears by June. Plant something in front as the lower leaves get raggy as summer progresses.

Rodgersia: Green/bronze pinnate leaves grow from a spreading crown. Elegant spires of cream/pink flowers in early summer. Goes well with the ornamental rhubarb.

Gunnera manicata: Sometimes known as the giant rhubarb, it has the biggest leaves of any garden plant. It grows to 8ft tall by 13ft or more if you let it. Leaves with diameters in excess of 4ft are common. The underside of the leaf and the whole stalk have spikes on them. Obviously, not great for a small garden.

Acanthus mollis (bear’s breeches): Handsome shiny green leaves that are almost evergreen, except in bad winters. Purple and white hooded flowers, growing to approx 5ft. Tasmanian Angel has cream variegated leaves and cream/pink flowers.

Globe artichoke/cardoon (Cynara cardunculus): The pair are closely related and look much the same, with large dissected, silvery foliage, rising to large, thistle-like edible flower buds/heads about 6-7ft high.

Two forms of angelica

Angelica: Large bipinnate leaves, growing from 3-9ft, depending on variety. Most usually grown is green herb Angelica archangelica. A. gigas, the purple form, is also popular. Umbels of white/green/pink flowers in summer. Biennial, but self-seeds.

Bergenia (elephant’s ears): The shortest plant here at 1ft, but invaluable. Admiral’s large green leaves turn purple in winter, bear pink flowers in spring. The leaves fade to green in summer, forming an excellent foil for summer flowers.

Verbascum bombyciferum (giant mullein): Its silver, furry leaves form a rosette 3ft across and in its second year, a huge flower spike erupts, carrying a yellow candelabra of blooms up to 8ft.

Hostas: Big Daddy (30”), large corrugated blue leaves (15”x10”), cupped and almost round with off-white flowers. Blue Mammoth (34”), puckered blue leaves (16”x12”), near-white flowers. Empress Wu (50”), huge dark green leaves (28”x25”), pale lavender flowers.

Ferns: Shuttlecock, or ostrich fern and the shield fern are good. In spring, lance-shaped, sterile fronds are produced in regular ‘shuttlecocks’ up to 5ft tall, followed in mid- and late summer by smaller, more erect, darker, and longer-stalked fertile fronds, which persist over winter.