Many of us have been pressed into sedate suits and neutral colors by day jobs or a misplaced sense of propriety as we age, but if you've been squashing down your inner goth, Halloween's the perfect time to indulge that irresistible pull toward everything dark, black and a little bit creepy — especially in the garden. Plants are one of the best ways to express yourself artistically, because even the most unusual plant can be paired to look great in nearly any style of garden. Check out these Halloween-inspired selections, and add a pop of personality that will make you smile every time you walk past.
Our native Ceanothus varieties offer so much to love, with varying forms from groundcover to shrub to tree, glossy deep green leaves and flowers that do so much for pollinators in spring. Yet sometimes, it's fun to mix things up with a new variety that's totally different. 'Tuxedo' Ceanothus is dressed to the nines with shiny black foliage and lavender blue flowers that arrive in late summer and continue through early fall. The contrast between the flower and foliage is absolutely stunning and, unlike many of our native Ceanothus, this upright, 8-foot-tall shrub responds well to pruning and can easily be shaped to suit your garden.
'Mystic Spirit' Dahlia
If you'd asked me whether nearly-black foliage would go well with apricot-colored flowers before I grew 'Mystic Spirit,' I probably would've wrinkled my nose and given a definitive headshake. Yet this exuberantly blooming dahlia has just the right amount of contrast to make it an eye-catching beauty, without veering into gaudiness. Placed near plants with blue or purple flowers like mophead hydrangeas, blue hardy cranesbills or catmint, the coloration of both flower and foliage really shines. Though you'll need to protect it from snails as it's emerging in spring (I use an organic iron phosphate bait, or let my chickens do the job), this compact 2-to-3-foot dahlia is easy to grow and makes a bold statement in the foreground of the garden bed.
'Spider's Web' Japanese aralia
This brilliantly speckled version of Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica 'Spider's Web') lights up a shady corner with its huge, ghostlike leaves. Unlike regular Japanese aralia, which can form woody trunks and become leggy over time, this slower grower becomes a lush, rounded mound. The profuse white spotting and venation make the plant look as though it's been overlaid with vivid white spider webs, hence the name. Though it's a small shrub, reaching only 4 to 5 feet in as many years, the coloration and large leaves give it architectural interest and make it a focal point in the landscape. Try pairing it with deep green ferns such as our native sword fern (Polystichum munitum) or glossy Japanese tassel fern (Polystichum polyblepharum) for a variation in form and texture, or create color contrasts with wine-red Heuchera or Tiarella varieties planted at its feet.
Red hook sedge
If you're wanting a plant with that traditional orange and black Halloween color combination, look no further than this small, colorful evergreen. Red hook sedge (Uncinia uncinata 'Rubra') has vivid bronzey-orange foliage year-round, and sends up stark blackish-brown flower heads come fall which rise above the foliage and create a stunning contrast. Reaching only 12 to 18 inches tall, they'll tolerate sun to part shade and are a great solution for areas that are occasionally damp or briefly flooded, like that difficult zone underneath a downspout or alongside a rain garden. Alternately, elevate it in a planter with black pansies and variegated Euphorbia 'Ascot Rainbow' for a modern take on a fall planting.
'Desert Black' Sedum
Tucked between stones or at the edges of a garden bed, succulents are the perfect accent in a drought-tolerant garden because they come in such a wide array of options: from spotted rosettes to blue-gray "sticks" to chartreuse groundcovers that creep along the ground. This newer introduction has dramatic burgundy foliage in one of the darkest shades I've seen in a succulent. Like many upright sedums, it has rosy pink blooms in early fall, yet unlike other varieties I've tried, this one has a diminutive habit (reaching only 12 inches tall in bloom) and stiff stems that don't flop with the first mild breeze.
Purple New Zealand myrtle
Finding a plant with a slender habit that grows taller than it does wide can be a real challenge, but these plants are a godsend for skinny side yards and areas where you want gentle screening without the bulk. Purple New Zealand myrtle (Lophomyrtus x ralphii 'Purpurea') is an evergreen shrub reaching 8 to 12 feet tall and only 4 feet wide, with tiny, puckered burgundy leaves. In summer, poofy cream-colored flowers dot the plant and add interest, while the colder weather of fall and winter deepens the foliage color. Not only is this a great plant for within the landscape, the branches can be used in floral arrangements for a striking contrast indoors.
While all of us plant geeks are well familiar with Heucheras by this point, there are a number of new varieties out in the last few years that amp up the black and make a seriously bold statement either in a container planting, or clustered together in the garden. Here are a few to consider:
H. 'Black Taffeta' is arguably the darkest I've seen, with a satiny finish to the foliage and a light crinkle around the edge of each leaf. Best color in partial shade.
H. 'Obsidian' has broad, rounded leaves with a gentle burgundy tint to the black foliage, and tolerates a little more sun and a little more drought than most Heuchera.
H. 'Black Beauty' has shiny, black, lightly ruffled leaves which glow blood red when backlit, making it an ideal specimen to use in a terraced bed, or a pot by the door where the sun can occasionally shine through the leaves.
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Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. Visit her on the web at www.GenevieveSchmidtDesign.com.