Silver and Grays in the Garden
Silvers and Grays in the Garden
By Ellyn Pelikan, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Silver and gray plants are the “twinkling lights” in the garden. The range of colors from bold platinum, green silvers, and an array of grays can enchant even the most critical eye. A glint of silver in the distance makes one want to wander down the path to see what it is. Silvers and grays in the morning can be chaste and cool looking and in the heat of the day stand unyielding in the suns blazing rays. In the evening they shimmer with ghostly mystery in the moonlight. They can literally ‘light the way” on a clear moonlit night.
Silver and gray plants are “fashionable”. They dress themselves in weathered grays, muted foggy colors, gray-greens, pin-up platinum and more. Their leaves can be tiny, glossy, hoary, pointed, sharp edged and bi-colored. Their “jewelry” in the form of flowers ranges from shy lavender, flirty pink, brilliant cerise to sky blue, sunshine yellows and soft golds.
A leaf of Salvia officinalis (sage) put into your shoe was thought to protect you from all evil when you traveled. Achillea (yarrow) sprigs placed under your pillow would allow you to envision the one you would marry.
I began growing silver and gray plants 25 years ago for a number of reasons. I adored the moon gardens of silvers and grays I’d seen and wanted to make one. I knew these types of plants were drought tolerant and could stay alive even with my uneven hand at watering! I also owned a florist shop and wreath business and used many of the plants extensively, both fresh and dried in my work. Cottage gardens were in vogue and many of these plants fit right into the theme of my garden at that time.
Silver and gray plants do well in our Mediterranean climate. Their only dislikes are prolonged periods of cold rainy weather, water saturated soil, and poor drainage. Planting on a berm or in a drier part of the garden is recommended. They will grow well in average well drained soil, require little fertilizer and are drought tolerant for the most part when well established.
I hope that you will give the silvers and grays a place in your garden. They are rewarding and forgiving plants that require little work and give much joy.
Silver and gray plants
The Glorious Silvers and Grays
Artemisia latifolia (silver queen) is one of the gray giants of the garden. Tall to 4’ it makes a wonderful frosty gray background shrub in a sunny border where it will peek out among its neighbors and add interest to the scene. It is an invaluable dried plant for floral work. Propagation is by division.
Artemisia schmidtiana (silver mound) is another great border plant. At 10-14” it can be used in the middle of a boarder or as a pathway planting. Keep trimmed to prevent a shabby look. It is lovely mixed with lavenders, euphorbias, roses and oregano. Propagation is by division.
Artemisia stellariana (beach wormwood) is a beautiful creeping plant that forms a snowy patch with stunning rosettes. It is better planted as a specimen or in awkward corners where it can creep to its heart content. Propagation is from cuttings. I have had no luck trying to transplant the whole plant.
Artemisia abrotanum (camphorata) is a rapid grower at 2-3’. It adds height and punch in a garden design with companions of roses, lavender, yarrow, and olive trees. In the fall it sports lovely brown spikes that can be dried. Propagation is by division. Feathery fine cut foliage of Artemisia abrotanum (var. limoneum) grows to 4’. Pungent fragrance it is a good plant in a fragrant border or massed on its own. Keep trimmed for a tidy look. Cut and dried it can be used as a moth preventative. Propagation is by cutting or root division.
Lavendula spp. have fragrant blue, lavender, purple and white flower spikes herald the lavenders, workhorses of the garden. Massed on its own or peeking out of borders it will produce flower spikes from late spring to nearly autumn. It is a premier bee plant and will live many years in sunny well drained soil. Lavender is deer and gopher resistant and once established is very drought tolerant. It is a prized perfume plant and is used a variety of cosmetic products and in culinary endeavors. Lavendula agustifolia (english lavender) has violet flowers, Lavendula augustfolia (Hidcote) and Lavendula agustifolia (twickel) sport dark purple whorls and Lavendula agustifolia (alba) throws up snowy white spikes. Be sure to investigate the wonderful world of lavenders!
Nepeta spp. (catmints) can be grown in sun or part shade. Members of the mint family, they love sandy, loamy, well drained soil. They are heaven to cats that spend countless hours rolling in them and are tough easy plants to care for in the garden. Wonderful silvery gray green foliage is topped off with clouds of blue flowers all summer. They are deer and gopher resistant and in the landscape will spill over a path to soften it or interweave with other plants in a border. Plants range from 3’ Six Hills Giant and Joanna Reed to 24-30” Walkers Low to smaller varieties including 18” Blue Wonder. A striking white Nepeta at 12” is White Snowflake. Cut back all Nepetas after first flowering and they will rebloom. Propagation is by cuttings or division.
Other personal favorites are:
Achillea (yarrow) in whites, pinks yellows and ruddy oranges adds zip to the garden. Drought tolerant when established and deer and gopher resistant.
Cerastium (snow in summer) Beautiful silvery small creeping plant that will spill over walls and rocks .Shear back after bloom is finished. Self sows.
Dianthus (pinks) are a garden staple in pinks, whites, reds. Lovely in the front of a boarder or massed on their own. Great container plants.
Origanum dictamus (dittany of Crete) Very showy, mid pink bracts similar to hop flowers top this gray green plant in summer. A must in the garden but not totally frost hardy. It mixes well with chives, pinks and smaller peonies. Keep to the front of a border as it is only 10-12”. Blooms from spring to late autumn.
Senecio cineraria (dusty miller) Grayish white plant can have solid or finely cut leaves according to variety. Topped with cheery yellow daisy like flowers in summer its grayness adds coolness to the garden. Good in containers or mixed with delphiniums, lavender and catmint. Cut back after flowering if rangy.
Marrubium (horehound) A frosty green silvery plant horehound will grows in lean dry soil. It will snake in with other plants in a low border. I have it planted with thymes and shorter Shasta daisies. Clip back at midsummer to prevent it from becoming rangy and floppy. It is a conversation piece in the garden.
Lychnis (rose campion) at 1-2’is a beautiful mid height gray plant that grabs attention with felty white stems that bear bright magenta flowers. Massed in a drift it makes a striking statement and it cools off a border of oranges chartreuses and bright pinks. This plant does not like wet feet and can be susceptible to root rot.
Salvia officinalis (common sage). This is strong scented cooking sage! Common sage has slightly furry green gray foliage and throws up glorious sky blue flowers borne on spikes. It can grow to 2” and is an excellent mid border plant in the herb garden. It is non invasive, long lived and dries very well. Cut back to reinvigorate at midsummer. A must in the epicurean pantry. Among others sage mixes well with hollyhocks, roses, lavender, horehound and catmints. Deer and gopher resistant.
Santolina (lavender cotton). Pale steel gray, camphor smelling shrub to 2’ lavender cotton has wooly comb or feather like foliage, It is used as a hedge plant and is perfect for knot gardens or making enclosures around beds as it takes shearing and clipping well. Bright yellow buttons cover it when it blooms in early summer. It is drought tolerant once well established. A wonderful addition to any garden carefree santolina is great in beds with euphorbias, perovskia, and yarrow.
Stachys (lambs ears) Soft dove gray wooly leaves grow on a compact plant to 1’. Wonderful as an edging plant it softens any border or pathway. Flower spikes of wooly gray contain small mauve flowers that peek out of the stalk. Deer resistant. It is not always gopher resistant so contain it in gopher baskets. This is a lovely plant to touch as you wander in the garden.
Perovskia (Russian sage) From the mint family perovskia is an interesting white silver plant with year round interest. To 3’, it comes up from the ground each spring wearing silvery grey green leaves and crowns itself in the summer with branchlets of sky blue flowers that last well into fall. In winter it bares tall ghostly white stems that can be cut and flocked for use in arrangements at holiday time. Cut to the ground in early spring. An easy going drought tolerant plant it is beautiful combined with taller lavenders, and olive trees. Deer and gopher resistant.
Teucrium fruticans (tree germander)
This easy plant requires well drained soil, sun and not much else. Drought tolerant and deer and gopher resistant. It is a striking plant with long oval steely gray leaves and white wooly undersides. In summer it blooms with blue wedgewood colored flowers. It can be used as a specimen plant in a large container. In perfect conditions it can reach 6’ so be sure to give it room. It can be shaped and clipped however to the size you want in your garden.
Three stunning trees in the silver and gray range include, Populus alba (white poplar), Picea pungens var.glauca (colorado blue spruce), and Abies koreana (Korean fir).