Why Daylily Foliage Matters To Me:The foliage of daylilies is an oft-neglected area and one that is ignored in some circles, but daylilies can have beautiful foliage and can serve wonderful effects in the garden; in background groupings, in mass plantings, as a substitute for ornamental grasses (with the added bonus of flowers) - but not just any daylily will work for these purposes. Some daylilies are bred for fancy flowers alone and require more intensive care than the average homeowner or gardener cares to spend on their gardens.
My first fifteen to twenty years with daylilies were spent mainly working with daylilies as landscape plantings rather than specimen plantings grown strictly for flowers. Though I grew a wide range of daylily types, I quickly found that only certain daylilies were actually what I would consider 'good plants', by which I mean landscape quality plants. To me, a landscape quality plant is a fast multiplier that recovers quickly from division and increases quickly but does not decrease its scape count as the plant matures and has beautiful foliage. Thus such plants can be frequently divided to create groupings and mass plantings that can be very beautiful in the landscape and can be accomplished fairly quickly, and without a massive monetary investment.
However, such plants are often overlooked in the daylily hobby and are not reliably-enough identified in the general home garden market. We often hear that daylilies make excellent ground covers, slope covers for erosion control, and xeriscaping plants, but not all daylilies successfully can fulfill those roles, which can make buying daylilies confusing and sometimes disappointing.
Over the years I have gravitated toward using simple flowered, species-form and more primitive cultivars in order to find just the right balance of vigor, flower display and beautiful foliage. However, in recent years, I have begun testing newer cultivars, both dips and tets, and have begun to locate a few that may have the extremely fine foliage and garden habit that can make a long-loved garden classic.
I wanted to show you some of the uses I have made of daylilies in my own landscape. As you can see, these daylily plantings are not just about the flower. They are important parts of my landscape year-round. The flower is an accent to the foliage, which is the primary landscape use for these plants. We frequently see short daylilies like Stella De Oro used in landscapes as borders or edging, but I like daylilies more as a backdrop and as a substitute for ornamental grasses. For that use, daylilies that are more robust in foliage and scapes are most appealing to me.
Here in the entry to my house, you can see a mass planting of daylilies to the left.
Here is a more complete view of the entry with daylilies in mass plantings to both the left and right of the stairs that lead down to the deck and house. You can see they have a lovely, grass-like, textural look that is very pleasing and is a wonderful contrast to the red foliage of the Japanese maple.
A study in contrast.
The contrast of the daylily foliage and the stark concrete retaining wall is very attractive and softens the hard edges of the concrete wall. The daylily growing behind the wall and to the left in front of the wall are H. fulva 'Korean', which tends to show lovely lime green foliage that is very golden when it first emerges in the spring.
From this view you can see that behind, the Japanese maple is trimmed flat and creates a hidden testing area where modern cultivars are being tested for their garden value. The soil in this area is backfill from when the house was built and is basically red sand and red clay. In other words - horrid! So this is a marvelous testing area for vigor and toughness. You can also see the large clump of H. Fulva 'Korean' that is against the retaining wall and you can see how golden it is. I believe that daylily foliage shows the same range of possibilities for color that hostas exhibit. Daylilies just haven't been selected for it like hostas have. The daylilies against the wall to the left of the fulva 'Korean' are the old classic Hyperion. You can see the lovely dark green foliage that it has from its ancestor H. citrina. I love the contrast of the two foliage colors together.
A closeup on Hyperion, and in the background you can see a mass planting that includes several species and cultivars. Notice that the planting is split in half with lime-foliaged plants to the right and darker green foliage plants to the left.
Here is a closeup on the mass planting I just mentioned above. I did plant the daylilies to have the two foliage colors as contrasts, but the ivy and sedum did their own thing and also intensify the contrast pf the daylily foliage. The daylilies to the left are the dreaded 'ditch lily', H. fulva 'Europa'. They have been there for years and haven't eaten creation :-) There is a clump of Stella or two in front of them also, and the daylilies to the left are a mixture of "Nashville Star" (an unregistered G. H. Wild cultivar that is slightly root-spreading), Frans Hals, H. sempervirens and H. fulva 'Kwanso'. When daylilies are mass planted like this, they tend to shade out most weeds.
Here is the view from the bottom of the stairs of the daylilies on each side of the retaining wall. Notice how the golden spring foliage of fulva 'Korean' contrasts so beautifully with the Japanese maple and the faded red paint on the railing.
This view shows the area of the garden on the west side of the house. This pathway leads up to chicken houses (that no longer have any chickens...) and the west gardens and then up to the top of the hill where the hybridizing garden and grow-out beds are located. This pathway used to be full sun before the bamboo ate it. I grew many daylilies along that path until the bamboo took over. I now focus on Hosta and Hellebores in this area. The Japanese maples have done well in both full sun and heavy bamboo shade. Many of the daylilies that I am showing in this post once grew along this pathway and were rescued from under the bamboo. The bamboo killed several cultivars in this area, so those that survived tend to be extremely hardy and flourish. Now the last two winters have taken a serious toll on the bamboo. I hope in time it will recover, though we will probably need a few mild winters for that to happen, but that's gardening - everything you plant doesn't work and things evolve.
Here is the western side retaining wall and the bed behind it. Both sides of the house have mirror image beds - both have the same horrid soil and I use both as testing areas. Anything that flourishes in these beds is very hardy and thus very useful for many purposes. This garden on the side of the house is steeper, and this area just behind/against the retaining wall had problems with erosion. I did two things that have stopped that. First, I added a McCourt rectangular tub and filled that with Louisiana iris and used a small McCourt three-tier waterfall behind the tub and in it I am growing Iris versicolor. These stop the dirt from being washed down over the bank and into the bamboo. The second thing I did was to cover the steep bank with daylilies. These have filled in well and have worked to retain the soil and stop erosion. It is also really beautiful, lush and requires very little weeding.
Here is the bank when the daylilies were first added in early spring of 2011. You can see the terrible soil, These daylilies are rescues from under the bamboo. They are "Nashville Star" and a fulva like cultivar I bought at Lowes in 2000 that was simply called "ground cover daylily". It is slightly root-spreading, which is very good on this slope.
Here is "Nashville Star" blooming in the summer of 2011, only a few months after they were saved from under the bamboo. You can see how much those little single fans I had planted that spring had grown in only a few months.
Here is the same planting in the spring of 2012. You can see the great growth of these plants. I did not fertilize them at all, as the bamboo will run into any area and get very vigorous if there is much fertilizer added. So these plants have to be very vigorous to flourish in this awful soil. This is essential for daylilies that are going into landscape situations and that won't be pampered!
Here is the planting from above in the summer of 2012. You can see the fulvous types at the top of the planting and the Nashville Star plantings below. The hot pink flowers to the right are the old cultivar Carmine Monarch, and it too survived under the bamboo for many years before it was rescued.
Here is the planting this spring (2015). I actually moved some of the Nashville Star that was directly behind the tubs, as they weren't necessary for stopping erosion (the plants up higher seem to do that enough on their own) and they were crowding the irises. They are now in the entry planting.
Here is the planting in the winter. I included this picture to show that these are all dormants and why dormancy is important to me in this type of landscape setting - no 'boiled-lettuce', ragged leaves struggling to grow all winter... The dead daylily leaves and tree leaves work to stop erosion through the winter. The look of this bed is very clean and open all winter - a stark contrast to the lush look of the growing season. I really enjoy that contrast.
Here is the planting this spring from the back. I included this to show how the clumps along the edge of the slope have become huge and serve to stop most of the erosion on their own, by channeling the runoff away from the slope.
Here is a wider shot of the slope showing more of the garden that is behind it, mostly daylilies, but also a few peonies. Peonies take years to establish in this horrible soil, so there aren't many in this garden. The tree peony has been there for over twenty years. I extensively cull poor performing daylilies in this area, and you can see the results in beautiful plants, as well I am gathering data on what daylilies make excellent landscaping subjects.
And here is the full view of the western testing bed from the northern view. In addition to being a great place to test daylilies for vigor and resilience, it is also very pretty year-round. That is because I vigorously cull those cultivars with bad foliage and poor performance and I focus on those that perform beautifully and there are almost no semi-evergreens or evergreens here so the bed looks clean and neat all winter. The lushness of these beds on the sides of the house is beautiful and relaxing - a lovely place to relax in the late evening after a hard day of working in the rest of the garden, and it is not just beautiful when the daylilies bloom.
This is a view of my hybridizing garden and pigeon houses (formerly chicken houses...). This garden was established in 2010. Even though it is mostly daylilies here, I have still approached this planting as a garden and with an eye toward pleasing aesthetics. I am very influenced by Asian gardens, especially Japanese gardens, so an ocean of moving, variable greens to me is just as pleasing as when the garden is in full flower, and that is the garden that I see for much longer each year than the garden in flower. Since most of my property is on a south-facing slope, I like the effect of the daylily foliage as it appears to almost cascade down the hillsides. The lush, green effect is in part due to culling out anything that showed ugly, unattractive foliage. Look at the beautiful lushness of this scene and you can see why daylily foliage matters to me as much as the flowers.
Here is the hybridizing garden in 2011, just to show you the progression of this garden.
Here is a detailed shot of lovely foliage in the hybridizing garden. The daylily cultivar in the front of the picture is Substantial Evidence, which has beautiful golden to lime green foliage, while the taller clump behind it is Notify Ground Crew. Both cultivars have wonderful foliage, beautiful flowers and tons of presence in the garden.
Here is a picture from summer of 2012. You can see there are still a few cultivars with less-than-beautiful foliage hanging around at that time.
Here is a view of the hybridizing garden this spring. I took the picture while standing on the porch of the pigeon house. You can see that the layout of the garden, even though it is just a garden for hybridizing, is still designed to be attractive, have easy access and be beautiful throughout the year. I am in this garden every day of the year, all year, as I have to feed the pigeons, so it maters to me that the garden is attractive and the plants that I grow here are beautiful, even when not in flower. The area to the front of the picture that is surrounded in landscaping timbers is a seedling bed. There is one plant in the front of the row against the timber to the right that has very unattractive foliage. I have seedlings from it, many with equally bad foliage, but a few with much better foliage. That plant is unlikely to be here after this season. The other seedlings around it have much better foliage and much better prospects.
Another shot of the hybridizing garden. The shot also shows some of the seedlings in their testing tubs. Notice even they have nice foliage. That's because I removed and composted those that didn't have beautiful foliage. I love the sea of beautiful green foliage in the background.
Here is Challenger looking gorgeous and shading the base of a beautiful white clematis. The plant in front of Challenger is one of the least attractive foliage plants left in the garden, but it has very strong rust resistance, so it has been given a reprieve for the time being, but as soon as I get some better seedlings from it...
The white clematis in bloom today. There is much more to the hybridizing gardens than just daylily flowers :-)
And to close our tour of foliage and mass plantings of daylilies, here we are back at the west retaining wall and the daylilies that stop the erosion. I have to admit, this is one of my very favorite areas in the garden - simple, elegant, and beautiful year round. This is why daylily foliage matters to me, and these are some of my methods for using daylilies in the landscape.