Variegated varieties just need suitable neighbours
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.
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.
Five of my favourite variegated plants
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.