Book review: Gardening with Foliage First

There are two major reasons why I buy gardening books: I want to expand my knowledge, and I want to be inspired. The best books combine both aspects. In light of the wealth of information (and beautiful photography) available for free online, it’s getting ever harder for publishers to get the attention of the book-buying public. But Timber Press found a way to cut through the noise with a new book to be published later in January: Gardening with Foliage First by Karen Chapman and Christina Salwitz.

Adobe Photoshop PDF

This hefty paperback (8 x 10½ in., 340 pages, and weighing in at a surprising 2½ lbs.) introduces 127 “dazzling combinations that pair the beauty of leaves with flowers, bark, berries, and more.”

The blurb on the back cover says:

What happens to your yard when it’s not in flower? Does it suddenly become a sea of green? With the right foliage palette, your garden could shine with color and texture year-round. In Gardening with Foliage First, designer Karen Chapman and horticulturist Christina Salwitz offer more than 100 plant combinations that start with intriguing foliage schemes, then layer in flowers, berries, bark, and other finishing touches. The result? Tapestries of inspiration you can take directly into your garden, and designs that flourish in every season and climate.

Ultimately, the book promises to help readers “create a garden that dazzles even after the blooms fade.” Needless to say I was intrigued. The authors certainly have the right kind of experience: Karen Chapman is a container and landscape designer running her own company, Le Jardinet. Christina Salwitz describes herself as a “Personal Garden Coach, Designer, Horticultural Photojournalist, Manager, Supervisor, Buyer, Merchandiser, Teacher, Writer, Marketing Expert.” Together they have the street cred to pull it off.

Gardening with Foliage First is divided into two major sections: “Combinations for Spring and Summer” and “Combinations for Fall and Winter.” Each section is further broken down into displays for sunny areas and shady spots.The page margins are color-coded so it’s easy to go straight to the section you’re interested in.

In the introduction, the authors describe the importance of starting out with a “foliage framework,” be it in a container or in a garden bed.  This could be a single plant but more likely it is an “inspiration plant” paired with another plant (or plants) with complementary or contrasting foliage color or texture.


If you’re happy with what you have, you can stop here. Or you can add more elements that pick up the “color echo” of an existing design component. As mentioned on the book cover, this could be flowers, bark, berries, or even man-made pieces such as garden art.

The meat of Gardening with Foliage First are detailed portraits of 127 combinations, which run the gamut from quiet and monochromatic to loud and colorful.


On the left of each portrait, there’s a large photo of the design together with a general description (occasionally a bit too florid for my taste). On the right, there’s horticultural information on the plants used in the combo (plant size, hardiness zones) together with how the design is expected to evolve over time. I found this information very useful, especially since it often suggests alternatives if a specific plant cannot be found.

The upside of the book is that many of the combinations are truly inspired. The downside is that the majority of them aren’t really compatible with our Mediterranean climate. Both authors live in the Seattle area, and most designs are heavily tilted towards the Pacific Northwest. If you live there (or in a comparable climate), you’ll be able to take the book straight to your favorite nursery and use it as a shopping list.

California Gardeners like me, on the other hand, are left with the few combinations that would do well here. Unfortunately, those are the ones I found the least intriguing. They feel tacked on to broaden the regional appeal of the book. “The Tickling Porcupine” on page 270, for example, is simply Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima) with Opuntia engelmannii. There is nothing visually interesting about this pairing and it falls flat compared to the others.


Having said that, I realize that it’s virtually impossible for a book like this to accommodate every gardening climate in the country in equal measure. The focus of this book is clearly on the Pacific Northwest and equivalent climates. That’s where this book’s comfort zone is—and its core audience.

Gardeners elsewhere can still draw on the inspiration the book provides and substitute plants that are better suited for their own area. However, this requires plant knowledge not covered in this book.

One final comment: The book design and printing deserve special mention. The reproduction quality is outstanding for a book with a list price of $24.95 (and selling for less than $19 on Amazon).

Note: Timber Press provided me with a complimentary review copy of this book.


  1. Good point about the plant palette--might be applicable to more of the US than the PNW, but Mediterranean is a whole other thing.

    1. What we need is a book or web site that provides a substitution guide. Something like "If your summers are too hot for Heuchera, try these plants instead," etc.

  2. Don't you ultimately feel that way about most blogs or books on the rest of the country? California and the Southwest are such distinctive climates that really are a different sort of gardening. The differences are so great, I find my inspiration coming more from desert or tropical/subtropical or other Mediterranean climate gardeners.

    1. I do agree with that. But I like to read about what gardeners in other climates do. I love the lush tapestries I've seen in the PNW and would love to recreate them using plants better suited for our climate. But that's a topic for another book.

  3. I've ordered the book, although, based on the authors' "Fine Foliage" blog, I anticipated what you confirmed here that the focus would be on plants more well-suited to the PNW than SoCal. Still, I expect I can find inspiration in the manner in which their plant combinations are put together. The challenge then becomes locating drought and heat tolerant substitutes.

    1. That's it exactly. If it weren't for the water situation, even I could grow large-leafed foliage plants. Cannas and bananas grow like crazy in our heat as long as they get tons of water. What's tricky is finding a balance between wishful thinking and reality :-).

  4. Hello SoCal friends - I have good news for you. I will be giving two talks in YOUR neighborhood this May! I'll be presenting Foliage First - the CA Edition, demonstrating and explaining these design principles with ideas using lots of your local plant flavors. May 8th at the San Diego Hort Society and May 12th at Laguna Beach GC.


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