Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Growing Up: Perennial foliage takes a starring role in garden

Here we are in our growing season.  The early blooms of the bleeding heart and creeping phlox are gone, the poppies and veronica are blooming now, yet we still wait for the later blossoms of the coneflower and Russian sage.  Perennial blooms are fickle – appearing in our yards for only a few short weeks, it’s their foliage that carries our perennial gardens through the season.  The foliage of perennials can be as striking and eye-catching as the brightest blooms.  Graceful arches of grasses, delicate serrated fronds of ferns, the silvery-gray of artemesias, the metallic or burgundy foliage of coral bells – all can take a starring role in your garden.


Tall fountains of ornamental grasses add drama and height while smaller mounding grasses can soften a border with their feathery tufts. 

Grass – Big Bluestem Grass

(Andropogon gerardii)

Native North American prairie grass, large clump of silvery-blue foliage that reaches 4-7 feet tall, purplish flower

Grass – Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass

(Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’)

Very popular in the Billings area.  An upright grass reaching 4-5 feet tall.  Flowers in June.

Grass – Giant Chinese Silver Grass

(Miscanthus sinensis giganteus)

Huge, pale blue-green foliage in erect clumps.  Blooms late in season, grows 6-8 feet tall and 5-6 feet wide.  Likes full sun and moist well-drained soil.  Makes a great privacy screen.

Grass – Heavy Metal Switch Grass

(Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’

An attractive and distinctive grass with bluish foliage and strong vertical stems.  Requires full sun and flowers in August.

Grass – Dwarf Fountain Grass

(Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’)

A clumping grass with fluffy buff plumes growing to 3 feet.



Shade-loving hostas with their broad leaves make a strong statement as a mass planting or as a specimen plant.  Combine with a contrasting texture such as ferns to create more drama. 

Hosta – Krossa Regal

Frost blue upright leaves to 3 feet tall.  Lavender blooms.

Hosta – Golden Tiara

Almost a dwarf plant reaching 8 inches tall and 12 inches wide.  Light green foliage edged in yellow.

Hosta – Patriot

Dark green foliage with wide, crisp white margins. 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide.

Hosta – Twilight

Dark green leaves with yellow margins.  18 inches tall and 18 inches wide.

Hosta – Ginko Craig

Narrow, lance-like leaves edged in white.  Lavender flowers.  10 inches tall.




When you really start paying attention to the foliage of perennials instead of just looking at the flowers, the textures and colors are amazing.  There is more than just the “green” to this greenery. 



This family of perennials have silvery-green foliage and can take full sun.  ‘Silver Mound’ is my favorite – feels very soft.


(Bergenia corifolia)

Large heart-shaped dark green leaves with pink to red flowers in spring.  Part to full shade.


(Brunnera macrophylla)

Large heart-shaped leaves with tiny light blue flowers in spring.  Part shade.  12 inches tall by 15 inches wide.



Shady ground cover with blue flowers spikes in early summer.  Part shade to full sun.  Foliage could be dark burgundy to bronze depending on variety.

Coral Bells


Great foliage plants for part sun or shade location.  Flowers are small and bell-shaped on narrow spiked stems.


Shade lovers with feathery foliage that need moist, rich, well-drained soil and wind protections.  Favorite varieties include Dryopteris felix-mas ‘Male Fern’, Matteuccia struthlopteris ‘Ostrich Fern’ and Athyrium nipponictum ‘Pictum’ ‘Japanese Painted Fern’.

Lady’s Mantle


Ruffled gray-green foliage topped by masses of pale yellow flowers in early summer.  Prefers well-drained, moist soil.  Part to full shade.

Lamb’s Ears

(Stachys byzantine)

Wooly silvery gray foliage with small pink flowers.  Likes sun.  Spreads 12 to 18 inches.



Upright perennial for part to full shade.  Grows to 12 inches with a 12 inch spread.  Silvery spotted foliage with pink to blue blooms depending on variety.

Purple Leaf Winter Creeper

(Euonymus fortunei ‘Coloratus’)

Medium growing spreading groundcover, for part to full shade.  Foliage has a purple hue in fall. 



Sedums are succulent plants with a variety of shape, size and color.  They are drought tolerant and need full sun.  ‘Autumn Joy’ and ‘Vera Jameson’ are very popular.

Snow on the Mountain


Rapid spreading groundcover reaching 10-15 inches tall.  Green and white variegated leaves.  Full to part shade.

Spotted Dead Nettle


Silvery white and green groundcover with either pink or white flowers depending on the variety.  12 inches by 24 inches.  Full to part shade.



Full sun and drought tolerant.  Blossoms range from yellow, pink, orange, red on silvery gray fern-like foliage.

Choose plants that suit both your garden and your gardening style.  Pay attention to the amount of light your area receives.  Is it in sun all day, just for a couple of hours or none at all?  Sun-loving plants will not perform well if they are in shade and shade-loving plants will fail if they get too much sun.

What kind of gardener are you?  Do you prefer to plant and forget?  Select low-maintenance plants that don’t need a lot of attention.  If you are out puttering in your garden every day, you may prefer to try varieties that need a little more care.