Sparkly silver goes with everything

In The Garden

August 07, 2005|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

There's no reason to save the silver for special occasions. It puts a pretty polish on a garden every day.

Plants with silver foliage or flowers catch your eye and set off the greens, yellows, pinks and blues around them. In shade gardens, silver flashes like fireflies. In a sunny spot, silver shimmers.

It may be the bright colors you notice first, but touches of silver really bring the garden to life. Even on the hottest days of summer, silver keeps refreshingly cool.

"You can't go wrong when you use silver plants anywhere in the garden," says Duane Hoover, horticulturist and designer at Kauffman Memorial Gardens in Kansas City, Mo.

"Silver is a great thing to contrast other colors with. It makes other colors look more intense."

Building a garden around a single color, or using it as a connecting thread throughout a garden, as Hoover does, tests the breadth of your horticultural knowledge and expands your appreciation of the subtleties of nature. The flower beds Hoover designed -- artful combinations of annual and perennial flowers, ornamental grasses and flowering shrubs, including roses -- are shot through with silver.

Hoover likes to use silvery plants in rich layers, as he did in a combination with clumps of downy lamb's ears planted in front of pink-flowered 'Dragon Wings' begonia and lush mounds of caryopteris 'Longwood Blue,' which has narrow green leaves with silver undersides and masses of sky-blue flowers.

"Repetition is one of my favorite rules of landscaping," he says. "Your eye is pulled through the garden, almost like you're playing a dot-to-dot game. It's exciting no matter where you look."

Silver-tinted plants are surprisingly easy to grow. "Silver foliage plants, by and large, are plants that thrive in poor conditions. They don't want a lot of fertilizer thrown at them," says Leah Berg, a garden designer who also teaches gardening classes in Kansas City. Plants with silver foliage are generally very drought-tolerant.

"The silvery look helps plants survive intense summer heat," Berg says. "It deflects heat and helps slow down the loss of moisture from the foliage."

Dusty miller (Senecio cineraria) is one of the most common and widely known silver-foliage plants. Hoover grows it like a sparkling stream under deciduous winterberry hollies. Dusty miller is an annual plant and will not survive harsh winters, but it looks good even after the gardening season is mostly over. Hoover once planted dozens of them in a broad streak through a long flower bed and, during the winter holidays, wove a wide red ribbon among them.

Silver also has a soothing effect. In a quiet corner, off a sheltered patio, Hoover planted gracious silver cedar (Juniperus virginiana 'Glauca'), which bears silver-frosted berries.

Blue flowers and foliage often look a little bit silvery, and pink sometimes has an icy finish.

"Silver is in the eye of the beholder," Berg says. "It depends on what time of day you're looking at something, and what it is planted next to -- what the light does to it."

Berg noticed a striking combination in her own garden last fall. When her neighbor's Virginia creeper took on its rich fall colors, it seemed to set the mounds of silver artemisia in her garden aglow. She also grows chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus 'Silver Spire'), a small tree with gray-green leaves that are just a little fuzzy on the undersides, giving them a silvery cast. It looks great with pale blue butterfly bush, Berg says.

Berg also likes groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia), which has gray-green leaves and silver-white flowers in the fall.

"From a distance, it has a foamy effect," she says, "and it shows off anything with contrasting foliage," such as the dramatic silvery sprays of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), with spires of purple flowers.

At Wave Hill, a public garden in New York known for its artistic plant combinations, the gardeners are so enthusiastic about the possibilities of silver foliage that they created an entire flower bed in shimmering shades of silver.

"It has a Mediterranean air to it," says Scott Canning, the garden's director.

Lavenders, euphorbias, artemi-sias, salvias and other plants are set off against one another in a startling display of textures. "We play with the idea. It's not the same every year."

Whether you combine silver-foliage plants with cool pinks and blues or with hot, high-contrast reds and oranges, the result is likely to be very pretty.

"Silver is really adaptable," Berg says. "I was trying to think of anything I've seen it with that I don't like, and I can't think of anything."

Silver accents in the garden

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