Monday, July 4, 2011

Must-Have Garden Guide: "Foliage" by Nancy Ondra

by Steve and Cathy Wieder 

As a couple, we generally have very different taste in books, even books about gardening. Rarely do we collaborate as much on a blog post or a book review as we did on this one and in this instance we are of one mind.

Nancy Ondra’s Foliage is one book that we both feel is a “must have” that should find its way onto every gardener’s book shelf. 

Once again, Nancy has partnered with horticultural photographer Rob Cardillo. The result of this all-star collaboration is a premier foliage design bible and a true feast for the eyes. His vibrant photographs of each plant add a stunning visual accompaniment to the text.

Many of the photographs show the featured plant highlighted in one of Nancy's well thought out, mature garden beds. In photographs that capture the play of light in very varied gardenscapes, he demonstrates the contribution of individual plants within a complex design. 

We purchased this book earlier this spring when we began designing and planting a shade foliage bed. We sought guidance and design ideas to enhance the handful of heucheras, hostas and ferns we had already set into the bed.  We got that and more. We now have a plethora of ideas for our foliage bed but more importantly, we have come to view our other beds in a new and broader way.

Historically, the traditional focus in the decorative garden has been on the color and bloom time of flowers. Except in the case of ground covers, in most traditional gardens, foliage has been a secondary and largely ignored consideration.  This book turns that gardening philosophy on its head and brings the foliage front and center.

What sets Foliage apart from other gardening books we’ve read is that this book is not a didactic lecture about foliage or an alphabetized compendium of plant descriptions. It’s an intimate conversation with someone whose encyclopedic knowledge and love of foliage and gardening shines through in every paragraph.

Not only is this book extremely well-written and comprehensive, there is a very personal quality to the writing. She writes to the reader, and to readers of every skill set and gardening style and preference.

Her intimate knowledge of every plant, from having grown and watched them over time, suffuses the writing.  She uses adjectives in a way that brings her vivid descriptions to life as easily and as brilliantly as the photographs do.  

The book opens with excellent introductory information about a wide range of considerations when looking at foliage in the garden, from plant selection, to leaf characteristics, to leaf diseases. She follows that with a carefully compiled and researched description of each plant. 

Foliage is a goldmine of color and texture for the garden, organized in a garden-friendly way. Listed first by color (do you want gold, blue, purple, or red in the foliage?) and then by leaf type (do you want fine feathery leaves or something spiky or large and bold?), she has foliage plant options for every nook and cranny of your garden.

As she does in her other equally excellent books, she includes growing tips that she has gleaned from decades of experience and she includes alternatives for creating a similar look with different plants for different hardiness zones and light and shade requirements.  

Scattered through the book are tables that are comprehensive and very helpful, and not just your basic list of plants.

For a novice, the tables provide a user friendly guide for making choices based on whether you are looking for a sun or shade plant with foliage in any color and leaf texture.

Our favorite is a table in her “What’s in a Name” series of tables in which she lists and explains words included in a plant’s name that indicate that the foliage may be variegated or unique in some other way.

Nan Ondra demonstrates in a dramatic and concrete way that color enhances texture and texture enhances color.

By looking at foliage in the context of a garden bed, rather than by focusing exclusively on individual plants, she encourages the reader and gardener to expand their perspective to consider and appreciate the plant as it visually relates to everything around it.

This book illustrates how the contribution of foliage to the richness of a garden bed fulfills the maxim that "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."  In each chapter and in each color grouping, she combines plants with different growth habits, height, leaf types, and colors to create a dramatic visual impact.  

Foliage offers a different kind of palette for the decorative gardener. What we have taken from this book is an expanded focus that extends beyond the short bloom season of our many perennials to encompass those aspects of the plants that embody the ongoing contribution of each to the garden as a whole.

We now have an enhanced appreciation for foliage as a source of visual interest and complexity throughout the growing season and into the fall and winter. In so doing, despite the changing seasons in New England, our garden can “bloom” year round.

Foliage is available in both hardcover and paperback at


  1. Sounds like a great book. I'll have to think about it again next time I am ordering something. Some great photos she has in it. Thanks for the information about it.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

  2. You made it sound like a really interesting book. To me the best thing about foliage is it tends to stay much longer than flowers :). Is the book area-specific?

  3. I'm constantly going back and forth between foliage and blooms. I love the blooms, but know that foliage is what makes the garden interesting. Sounds like a great reference book and a nice read.

  4. Thanks for offering such a succinct review of the book. I am often searching for books that will educate me on different aspects of gardening...this seems to be one that would give me that other perspective.

  5. Huh,considering all of the gardening books I own, I don't thing I have one specifically on foliage,
    thanks for a thorough review!

  6. This post just cost me two books! Also bought her book on grasses from while I was doing it :). Thanks for the review - I'm very much into foliage and I think this will help me a lot. I'll let you know what I thought of the book once I've received and read it.

  7. Many thanks, Cathy and Steve, for the great review of Foliage. I'm glad you enjoyed the book, and I hope that those of you who have recently ordered it will like it too.

    Masha, in response to your question: I included a wide range of hardy and tender perennials and woody plants, as well as annuals, along with suggested alternatives for each entry, so the book should be useful in a variety of climates and growing conditions.
    Nan Ondra

  8. I enjoyed your review of Foliage and especially like your description of the writing style, which makes it sound as a good read. And I am sure the photos are worth drooling over.

  9. This sounds a super book, will have to see if I can get it over here. I have always felt that foliage is important and that flowers are a bonus, glad to find others agree !

  10. Excellent in-depth review-- I love getting first-hand evaluations of ANYTHING, it is always helpful. Thanks Cathy & Steve!

  11. Looks like a lovely book. I love books with lots of photos. Don't think I've ever seen anything with a blue leaf.

  12. I think I "need" this book after reading your review! It sounds wonderful and the photos you shared are just delicious. I'm heading over to Amazon now to check it out! Have a great weekend and thank you for your nice comment today.

  13. Wonderful review of Nancy Ondra’s book, Cathy and Steve, and photos by Rob Cardillo are always those that make one pause. Blossoms are great, but we love foliage combinations.

  14. great post - book looks good - I think foliage is far more important than flowers.

  15. I seem to be drawn to foliage more than the actual flower. Maybe that comes from my living with a very shady yard, years ago. I didn't know a thing about shade plants. I wish I had known about this book back then. I especially love many different colors and leaves. I can see that this blog offers a wealth of knowledge about gardening. I'll be back often. Thanks for stopping by my blog...Balisha

  16. Terrific review of a book that sounds just like one which we should have on the shelf.In my early days of gardening, like the majority of folks it was all about the flowers. Gradually, one finds the foliage starts to grow on you, (stop it Myra I am being serious) Naw, but seriously the leaves are just as important as the flowers are.

  17. That certainly was a glowing review, and I am sure it is well deserved.

  18. You convinced me! I don't usually do this, but I immediately went to amazon and placed an order. As you may know, my garden is all about foliage. My garden library needs a book like this. Thanks!

  19. I've looked at this book numerous times but never actually bought it. Good to know that it is a good purchase. Perhaps the next time I see it I'll buy it!

  20. WOW - what a great review of this terrific-looking book! I agree with Alistair - the foliage is just as important as the flowers! The photos in the book look fantastic and it appears to have some really helpful, well-organized information....I might have to add this one to the list - thanks!

  21. Cher, Masha, Holleygarden, Sage Butterfly, Carolyn, and Karen, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Yes, it’s a fabulous book.

    Christine, I am so sorry I cost you so much money LOL, but you won’t regret this book, I promise!

    GWGT, the photos are definitely drool material, but the book would be fantastic without them, to be sure. Her writing style is friendly, like having a conversation with someone who knows all the little tips and tricks.

    Pauline, I hope you can get it from Amazon where you are. If not, email me privately. ;)
    Linnie, the biggest problem I have right now is deciding which of all the great plants she included in the book would be best suited to my garden. As importantly, I am seeing things in my garden that I never appreciated before.
    Bridget, I just saw a blue pine cone on Alistair’s blog. As they say in fashion, blue is the new green LOL.

    Kathleen, YVW, and if you buy more than one book, you and Christine can start a support group LOL. I’ll join right in. I can’t go to Amazon without splurging!

    Diana, I agree, his photos are spectacular, whatever the venue. Putting his photos with her text was a stroke of genius on the part of the publisher (JMHO).

    Catmint, I would have disagreed until I read this book. Now I think you’re absolutely right.

    Balisha, we were building a shade foliage garden when I found this book. Although most of my beds are in sun, the ones in shade do put the spotlight on foliage… and I am finally learning to appreciate that!

    Alistair, Steve was behaving just like Myra until he sat down and actually looked at the book. We don’t usually like the same books – but then our gardening interests are a little different too. I had already written a draft of the review, and asked him to proof it. So he decided to look at the book. He began to dictate things he thought I should include and the next thing I knew, it was a totally different but just as glowing review. (He does have a way with words LOL.)

    Deb, I have to confess, I wasn’t even thinking about you when we posted this but yes, it would be right up your alley. Hope you enjoy it as much as we do. This is one of a small handful of books that just never manage to get put back in the bookcase.

    Marguerite, thanks for stopping by. It gets four thumbs up from the two of us!

    Redgardenclogs, it IS very well organized…. As nicely done as her book on Perennials, which I reviewed a few months ago and which is another of my all time favorite books. You don’t have to search for info… just find the plant and find the right heading and all the pearls are there.

    Thanks, everyone, for all of your comments. There are so many gardening books out there, we are glad we could find something of this quality to endorse.


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