Color Conscious

My wife likes to read home decorating magazines to keep up with the latest trends, in hopes that our children will eventually graduate from college and we will be able to afford some of those neat changes.  She proudly informed me the other night that the article she was reading touted the hot decorating color for 2011 as grey, and that was the color she painted our daughter’s apartment walls!  I took note, but thought….grey?…. not the best color for working into the landscape.  After all, the color grey in the landscape usually means, well, dead.  So, I pondered, how could I, as a landscape designer, get on board with the latest color trend and share it with my clients?  Well, the magazine article elaborated that grey was a unifying color and should be used with powerful accent colors that make your rooms “pop”!  Bright yellows, oranges, and reds were mentioned as terrific accent colors, which again thrilled my wife because she used bright yellow as an accent in the aforementioned apartment.  (I told her maybe she should be a designer.)

The color grey might not be a great landscape color, but its close cousin silver can be a very useful color in the landscape.  And it is used in much the same way as the decorator uses grey in the indoor landscape—as a unifier that can bring a sense of continuity to flower and landscape beds.  Silver (and grey) foliage plants tend to stand out in the border, yet they elicit a calming feeling and are a perfect foil for more exciting performers.   Silver plants associate well with almost any color, as a strong contrast to the “hot” side of the color wheel, and a perfect mixer with the cool colors like blue and purple.  Silver can even be the focus of a specialty garden when mixed with shades of white, as in the famous White Garden of Gertrude Jekyll.  Grey and silver plants, though, are not always the easiest to use in some situations.

If you look at a list of silver and grey plants, you will quickly see that they are primarily best suited for sunny, hot, and dry areas.  Plants like artemesia, salvia, perovskia (Russian sage), and stachys (Lamb’s ears) are great performers for the sun garden, but don’t fare too well as shade encroaches.  There are, however, a few really cool plants for shade gardeners who want to try the “silver theme” too.  The following list includes some of the author’s favorite silver plants; the list is by no means comprehensive, but does highlight some underused and overlooked garden plants.

All gardeners know Artemesia ‘Silver Mound’ , but some may not be acquainted with Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’, which is a large silver perennial with deeply cut leaves, growing to 3 to 4 feet tall and wide (bigger if you let it).  It should be cut back regularly to keep it in bounds, and make it look its best.  Most landscape lovers have used one or more of the Salvias, like ‘May Night’, which generally have green foliage; a couple of interesting Salvias with grey or silver foliage are ‘Purple Rain’, a 2 foot tall purple bloomer with silver-green foliage, and Salvia ‘Argenta’, a short lived perennial with rosettes of the softest, fuzziest, silver leaves imaginable—you just have to pet them every time you walk by.  A silver plant you won’t want to pet is globe thistle—Echinops ritro, a 2 foot tall spiky perennial with great silver foliage and perfectly round globe blue flowers.  This plant really performs in mid –summer hot, dry conditions.   For shade gardeners, here are a few beautiful silver garden stalwarts:  Lamium ‘Beacon Silver’  or ‘White Nancy’ are groundcovers with beautiful silver foliage and pinkish or white flowers;  Pulmonarias are essential for the dry shade garden and several varieties have nearly completely silver leaves—try ‘Spilled Milk’ or ‘Excalibur’ for shining examples; and finally for the shade, no garden is complete without ferns like the silvery Japanese Painted Fern or its close relative “Ghost”.

Silver colored trees and shrubs are a little more scarce, but here are a few to help carry the theme of a silver/grey landscape.  Butterfly bush, Buddleia, has several varieties with silvery foliage as well as beautiful, long blooming flowers;  a couple of this author’s favorites are ‘Peacock’ and ‘Silver Anniversary’.   Russian Olive,   especially a variety called ‘Quicksilver’ is a beautiful and tough silver leaved shrub–caution is needed though as this plant has abundant spines.

For bright, sunny areas, there are several grey foliaged Junipers—one of the best is ‘Grey Owl’, and don’t neglect the very regal( though more blue than grey) Blue Spruce varieties ‘Hoopsi’ or ‘Koster’, and the magnificent (and very silver) Concolor Fir.  Finally, a couple of silver/grey leaved trees that a gardener might find interesting: a crabapple called Tschonoskii, which is columnar with a very nice form, loads of white flowers in the spring, and sensational fall color; and a weed tree I grew up with in Kansas City that literally shines with silver foliage especially when it rains—the Silver Poplar.

   I don’t honestly recommend planting a Silver Poplar because they have so many problems the list wouldn’t fit this page, but the foliage is truly stunning when the wind blows and the rain pours!

Send us your comments about grey and silver leaved plants—this just might be your year to be in vogue!  Happy gardening!

Contributing editor:  Don Archer, Don Archer Designs in partnership with Greenleaf Garden Services