There's a feeling among some gardeners that any variegated plant will necessarily be more interesting than its plain-leaved cousin. But too many variegated plants in a garden can look like a bad outbreak of a spotty rash. Some variegated plants just look sickly, gasping for a good dose of chlorophyll. I have never seen a variegated hydrangea that seemed happy with its lot and the variegated mock orange, Philadelphus coronarius 'Variegatus', is a scraggy grower, with flowers that get muddled up with its cream-margined leaves.
But carefully used, variegated plants are winners. First, as always, you need to think about what the plant needs in order to grow successfully. Some need to be in shade if the leaves are to stay strongly marked. Others will do best in full sun. Second, we need to remember that a variegated plant in a mixed group will always draw the eye. It will do best in an unfussy setting, with plants that are strong enough not to be browbeaten by their showier neighbour.
The variegated comfrey, Symphytum x uplandicum 'Variegatum', is a plant that always attracts attention. It is a coarse, brash, magnificent thing with great hairy leaves in two shades of grey-green, each with a wide margin of creamy white. The leaves emerge in April and in May the plant throws up flower spikes of a bluish-mauve which will stay looking good into June. When the leaves start to look a little dog-eared, you must shear the whole plant down to the base. It will then throw up a second crop of good leaves, which have a longer season than the first.
For a couple of seasons in our garden this splendid bully terrorised its feathery companions, a broom, an astilbe and some pale achilleas. I thought the bold leaf would be a good anchor for them. I was very wrong. It drowned them. Now the comfrey is planted on its own in front of a stand of angelica which gives it a cool, but architectural setting. They seem to get on fine. The dark bulk of acanthus is not intimidated by it either.
In pulmonarias, just coming into flower now, variegation is a must. Where I wanted a plain green and blue effect, I wouldn't use the plain-leaved Pulmonaria angustifolia 'Munstead Blue'. I'd go for something like omphalodes which flowers much more freely and brightly. The variegated forms of P. saccharata such as the Argentea Group are particularly pleasing with pointed leaves splashed rather than spotted with silver. The flower spikes come through in March and April, with blooms that drift between pink and blue. Then there is a hearty crop of leaves, very useful under some fairly plain, tall planting – ferns perhaps, or the delicate Prunus autumnalis. For a white garden, 'Sissinghurst White' would be the obvious choice.
Astrantia is always a good-tempered garden plant, variegated or not, with flowers that have the curious papery texture of everlastings. Astrantia major 'Sunningdale Variegated' is particularly choice with leaves splashed boldly with cream. It looks good alongside the plain, blue-flowered brunnera (using variegated astrantia with variegated brunnera would be altogether too much of a good thing), or next to the purple-flushed leaves of the herbaceous clematis, C. recta 'Purpurea'. Dark bugle running around its base suits it, too.
With variegated shrubs and trees, choose those that do not seem to have lost too much vigour in the process of changing from plain to bi-coloured. The variegated azara is a poor thing, slow and much more susceptible to frost than its evergreen cousin. The variegated dogwood, though, is a winner, set perhaps against a golden-flowered Mount Etna broom and the stately dark bulk of Acanthus spinosus.
Or, if you don't have that sort of space, you could underplant the same dogwood (Cornus alba 'Elegantissima') with lamb's ear and a pale blue Viola cornuta. The variegated fuchsia is equally easy and good, especially when paired with a brilliant blue, not-too-enormous agapanthus, whose flowers will be out at the same time as the fuchsia's.
Variegation is caused by lack of chlorophyll, an aberration that produces the white and yellow stripes, spots and margins on variegated foliage. Where leaves are green-centred with a white margin, the green part (which is more vigorous) sometimes grows at a faster rate than the chlorophyll-starved band round the edge. This can result in leaves that look distorted and sick, as with the variegated solanum. Leaves that are splashed with white in the centre – those of holly, elaeagnus, the variegated sycamore – do not have this problem, but are more likely to revert to plain green than white-banded leaves.
The choice of variegated plants is vast. Here are five of my favourites:
Arum italicum 'Marmoratum'
Height 15-25cm/6-10in; spread 20-30cm/8-12in; superb dark green, glossy foliage, elegantly veined in silvery white. The creamy-white spathe is followed in summer by a spike of brilliant red berries. Foliage at its best during the winter months, when we most need beautiful things in the garden.
Cotoneaster horizontalis 'Variegatus'
Height and spread 30cm x 1.5m/1 x 5ft. This is like a variegated form of the well-known herringbone cotoneaster. It does not flower or fruit as freely as its plain-leaved cousin, nor is it as vigorous, but it is much more stylish in leaf. These are light grey-green with cream margins outlined in deep pink.
Height 10-13cm/4-5in; spread 15cm/6in. Enchanting shuttlecock flowers in shades of pink or white and even better foliage, fabulously marbled in silver. It lasts from early autumn right through to late spring.
Luma apiculata 'Glanleam Gold'
Height and spread 3m/10ft. A variegated version of the evergreen myrtle, with neat aromatic foliage, margined in cream. Slow growing and easy to clip into a ball or cone. Small cream flowers are an added extra. Enchanting.
Vinca minor 'Argenteovariegata'
Height 10-20cm/4-8in; spread indefinite. A prostrate, mat-forming periwinkle, neater in all ways than its big cousin, Vinca major. The evergreen leaves have creamy white margins, an excellent contrast with the violet-blue flowers. A good plant for steep banks.
WHAT TO DO
* Split clumps of snowdrops and aconites as they finish flowering and replant the bulbs with a handful of bonemeal to encourage them. Snowdrops look particularly good in ivy. Aconites seem to flourish in the sort of starved grass you get under deciduous trees.
* Cut to the ground shrubs such as rubus grown for their coloured winter stems. If you have not already done so, shear off the old foliage of periwinkle to make way for the new shoots now springing up through the dross.
* Summer flowering bulbs should be planted as soon as possible. Avon Bulbs of Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE, 01460 242177, avonbulbs.co.uk, are offering three 'Nerine bowdenii' for £3.60 and some nice lilies, including three white 'Casa Blanca' for £5.20 and three dark mahogany red July flowering 'Red Velvet' for £5.50.
WHAT TO SEE
* The owners of Pentillie Castle, beautifully set above the River Tamar near St Mellion in Cornwall, are having their first open days of the season. For the full daffodil effect, head for the opening on Easter Monday (10am-4pm). Admission £6. For more information go to pentillie.co.uk or call 01579 350044Reuse content