August 29, 2016

How to Use Gray and Silver Plants In Your Landscape

Three textures and shades of gray converge: bold vertical spires of an unnamed iris is planted in front of the lacy evergreen foliage of a small, common Bluepoint Juniper. Both join forces with the foliage of a limey-gray succulent, sedum 'Pure Joy' to create a pleasing composition.

The longer I garden, the more enamored am I of using gray in the landscape. Partly because it suits our geographic climate and soil, but also because it is just so darn striking and beautiful....in all manner of garden styles, from formal and traditional like mine, to graphic and contemporary spaces with strong lines and edgy vibes. Often with a hint of blue, this neutral color is far from neutral in its landscape impact and contribution to the overall beauty of the garden. Here are some ways and whys to use gray in your landscape.

The fuzzy texture of this ornamental vermillion or mullein helps it reflect strong sun and heat. Its constitution can handle the most brutal of Oklahoma summers.
As much as I love lush and verdant green, I also like a break from it every now and again, and gray often does the trick in breaking up the monotony of too much green. Especially in the dead of summer when a plant of ANY hue that thrives in the heat and remains fresh and healthy looking is valued. Gray plants often have fuzzy, highly textured foliage that is very effective in reflecting strong sun and heat, and why they are found so often in arid landscapes. Even when not in bloom, gray plants like santolina, lamb's ear, many sedums and herbs, look quite handsome... and consequently are often used more for their foliage than flowers. 

Contrasts in color, texture and form is  visually appealing and contributes to an interesting flowerless gray-toned vignette.
In Oklahoma, we don't get rain for weeks on end and the heat can be brutal, so gray and silver plants can be smart and attractive choices. However, our growing season can ALSO be extremely humid as in many areas of the country.... an environment NOT usually favorable to their growth and vitality in the garden. Consequently, they demand excellent drainage, good air circulation, and no risk of over-watering. Try not to plant even NEAR areas that tend to hold water, or that will constantly be showered with a sprinkler head. Too much water + heat = a pile of gray, dying mush.


Note how the mullein grows in between flagstone with excellent drainage, whereas the box balls and other green growers in the background are growing in the garden bed.

Mullien, easily started from seed, resembles Lamb's Ear closely, but handles heat and humidity in my garden far more successfully.

When planting, I usually give them a a nice shovelful of sand, grit or gravel in the planting hole to improve drainage in my heavy clay soil, and I also dig an especially generous sized hole for them to get a good start. Once they are nestled in, I usually mulch them with grit or gravel as well. This does two things:

A small and happy mullein takes seed and grows in the gravel.
it keeps soil and moisture from splashing onto the foliage itself, and provides a hospitable medium for germination once the plant matures and goes to seed. (I wrote about it in a post on 5 Ways to Use Gravel here

Dainty gray foliage of yellow columbine that germinated easily in gravel mulch.
The delicate cut foliage of this columbine is attractive with or without its yellow bloom, and is often used in my garden bouquets.
While attractive growing solo, gray as a foil to color may be even better. I especially like combining it with pink, both a soft or raucous hue. Just a hint of gray artemisia paired with pink ice plant in the image below softens the look and makes a pleasing visual contrast. Note also that both growers appreciate the same arid growing conditions.

Pink Ice Plant and silvery artemisia grow at the base of a stone bench, reveling in the dry environment.
Choices abound in selecting a gray plants for your gardens or containers. Try Evolvulus, common Blue Daze to spill over the sides of a container, or, as in the image below, as a full sun ground cover. The heat-loving PROVEN WINNER variety, 'Blue My Mind'  looks incredible mixed with low growing Mazus Reptans (find Mazus at Blue Stone Perennials) thriving in extreme sun and heat at the DALLAS ARBORETUM AND BOTANICAL GARDEN in the image below. (Do be careful with Mazus however as it can be an overly aggressive self seeder... and in my garden has been prone to spider mite.)

'Blue My Mind' growing as a beautiful gray, blue flowered ground cover, another effective gray + color combo.
Gold and gray is also an excellent color combo, used here as a ground cover in a full sun exposure in-between massive slabs of flagstone at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.

Gray and silver choices are plentiful in the succulent category. One of my favorites: 'Rock 'N Grow' Pure Joy Sedum from PROVEN WINNERS  sent to me a couple of years ago to try out.

Beautiful fresh blooms on Pure Joy Sedum.
Not yet in color, the blooms of Pure Joy Sedum equal the beauty of the foliage itself.


I am especially fond of the tidy gray tuft of foliage that erupts from this sedum each spring... a gray spring delight that plays beautifully with other fresh green residents of the garden poking their heads out in the new season. 
Potted olive tress in all sizes adorn my small stone fireplace in the summer.

Finally, my now favorite gray hued container plant.....the olive tree. I buy them from SCHUBERT NURSERY in varying sizes and add to my collection each year. Two are now three years old...I overwinter them in a friend's greenhouse; the smaller ones I keep in a sunny window at home over the winter. 

So there you are....how and why to grow gray/silver plants in the garden. If I haven't convinced you yet, go to 4 YOUR GARDEN  and watch the segment Linda Cavanaugh and I did a couple of weeks ago talking about this very thing. 

OH!! One last mention for those of you now color starved after reading this post. One of my favorite garden accessories are my Red Hunter Tall Garden Boots. I saw a special on them for a fraction of the cost I paid last year through Brad's Deals. Go to 




if you are in dire need of these cheery muck-abouts.

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3 comments:

  1. Is it possible to transplant Lamb's Ear? I tried getting a start from my mother-in-law and they died quite quickly. It could be that they were in a place that was too damp. If there is hope for transplantation, then I totally want to try again!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Grey and silver plants bringa a nice effect to the landscape.
    I like your blog.
    /Kitty, Finland

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes, it is.....but wait until fall when all or most of the humidity has passed. Make sure you get
    a sizable clump with a substantial root system. Give it a go!

    ReplyDelete

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