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Romantic Garden Design – Plants with Silvery Foliage

Daily, Gardening, Home & Garden | March 16th, 2011 by Carol Wallace No comments

silver gardenI’ve loved plants with silver foliage since I first began to garden. To be strictly accurate I should say that I love the misty look they create in a garden and they way they create a soft transition between potentially warring colors.

To be sure, many silver plants are also foliage war lords! They advance from their designated spots,  move in and take over as soon as you turn your back. I planted ‘Silver King’ one year and loved it. I turned my back on it for an entire winter – and when I came back, it had pretty well sprouted in every inch of the garden that wasn’t already occupied. And I have created a ribbon of silver bordering almost all of my gardens, thanks to a 2″ pot of Stachys byzantina that I planted about 10 years ago. Nowadays I pull it with no more qualms than I suffer when pulling chickweed.  But it is lovely, and the flowers dry beautifully. And the leaves are furry – thus the name, and quite pettable. So I put up with it.

But not all silver plants are thugs. Not even all the artemisias and lamb’s ears.

There are Artemisia and Stachys that are somewhat respectful of boundaries. Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’ is rounded so perfectly that it looks almost sculpted – and pretty well stays in bounds until the heat of summer. Then it falls apart and flops all over. You can rejuvenate it by cutting it back (thus leaving a hole in the garden for a while) or you can put a circular plant support around it in spring that will prevent it from sprawling.

And I’ve never had problems with A. ‘Powis Castle’ – but that may be because it rarely survives in my garden for more than two to three years. It doesn’t really care for Pennsylvania weather or our clay soil, you see, and insists on absolutely perfect drainage. I can cure the soil problem, but controlling the weather is a talent that eludes me. However, it is known as a fairly well behaved Artemisia.

Annual Artemisias are supremely well-behaved; none have come to me with its full name and pedigree, so although I love and plant them whenever I can find them locally, I am unable to order through catalogs and thus be assured of a supply. The annual varieties all seem to come in a silvery white with lots of texture – and of course they never become a threat because winter eradicates them.  ‘Dusty Miller’ is a popular one, available at most garden centers, and although it may be common, it still is a workhorse in the garden, mediating between potentially warring colors and generally softening the look of the garden. It also makes a nice front of the border edging.

There are several other annual varieties with interesting textures from broad to extremely fine that are worth seeking out.

Artemisia stellariana ‘Silver Brocade’ grows fairly quickly, but not invasively, and is the perfect substitute for those promiscuous Lambs Ears.

lambs earsThere is a variety of Lambs Ears out now that allegedly doesn’t flower – which saves the gardener a lot of time and effort. I got mine before the introduction of the non-flowering type, and it has gotten so that I have to devote whole days to deadheading them before they go to seed. I always miss one until it is too late – which is why we have it growing everywhere from the driveway to the woods. But the new variety spreads in width with as much enthusiasm as the original. It just doesn’t seed everywhere.

Helichrysum petiolares in an annual, or tender perennial which I especially like. I get it every spring in a 2″ pot, and by end of summer, it has spread to cover a lot of territory. Despite that it’s not invasive. It is only sending out long branches that could be used profitably in a hanging basket. In my garden, it threads its way through pale pink annuals and a Rosa glauca, simply delivering a hint of gleaming silver to those plants it chooses to visit. If it ventures into uncharted territory it can simply be cut back.

veronica in winterAnother silver that I discovered, purely by accident was a Veronica incana – small pointed oval leaves and porcelain blue flowers for several weeks in spring and early summer. They don’t call Veronica “speedwell” for nothing – and so far mine has spread at a good rate, slowly allowing me to oust the lambs ears. It gives a more finely textured effect, and so far has been a much more polite garden guest than either Artemisia or Stachys..

Perovskia – Russian sage, is now available in a few different forms, but all with the characteristic lacy silver foliage and blue flowers. ‘Little Spire’ is a fairly new release, and somewhat shorter than the others, so it doesn’t flop about the way the originals do. But I have discovered that if you cut the taller ‘Filigrans’ (which was a Perennial Plant Association plants of the year a while back) down to about half in June it stays more compact and doesn’t flop.

Pulmonarias come in many colors of foliage, but more and more they are coming out with varieties of nearly pure silver. They flower pink or blue in spring, and are not at all invasive.

salvia and silver borderAnd then there’s lavender – wonderfully fragrant, not at all invasive and beautiful. To be sure it is more gray than silver (and a few varieties are more of a gray-green) but it is undoubtedly a plant with romance. It also dries beautifully.

And let us not forget Heucheras, many of which are frosted in silver over burgundy or purple. But that is getting into a whole new area – variegated plants. So I’ll stop while I’m more or less ahead.

These are only the most common of the silver-foliaged plants available. And if you live in a dry area or find yourself in drought, as we seem to have here in the Northeast US the past several years, an added bonus us that gray and silver plants are almost always drought tolerant and so need little watering. Some of them flower in yellow – a combination that doesn’t thrill me – but this is easily sheared off. And all of them combine with both strong primary colors and pastels.

Use a lot of silver in your garden and you will find it hard to make a mistake in color combinations, even if you try.

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