It's time for silvers to shine in garden

As darker days near, shimmery plants brighten landscape

October 08, 2006|By Virginia A. Smith | Virginia A. Smith,McClatchy-Tribune

It's autumn, and the garden's bathed in a whole new light: softer, grayer and especially flattering to silver plants, otherwise known as horticulture's ultimate drama queens. They demand attention whatever the season, but seem to glow this time of year.

You see it in the frosty spires of Russian sage, the fluttery underside of butterfly bush and the somber stalks of meadow rue. From barely white to gleaming blue, silver plants move from brash and radiant in August to demure and luminous in the fall.

And like the self-centered beauties they are, "they transform everything around them," says Karen Bussolini, co-author of Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for Every Garden (Timber Press, $34.95), who compares the silvers' sheen to "the light of a Danish summer night."

That's a romantic image that belies a harder reality: This is a tough time for gardeners. It's sad to think about shorter days and darker mornings and the fading colors of summer's bouquet.

"I'm looking out my window now," says a wistful Bussolini, who gardens on a steep, deer-filled mountainside in Connecticut. "The annuals are sort of spent, all the asters and fall flowers are just about to pop and I'm experiencing that in-between period in my garden."

But wait. "I see a little bit of color from the flowers played off against a lot of silver," she says. "Silver enhances any color you can throw at it."

So silver is a pick-me-up in these soon-to-be-dark days, and Jeannie Francis takes full advantage. In her garden in Cinnaminson, N.J., silver plants dot the flower beds and fill containers near a tiny pond and fountain. She's also planted a blue spruce and a blue-needled Japanese white pine.

In the beds, Francis has sprinklings of lavender and thyme, Artemisia and sedum. In the pots, she's used a lacy lotus vine, which is a white silver; light-green cabbage; and a dramatic Persian shield. Their silvery shades are offset by pink, red and purple annuals.

"I love colors, but sometimes you have too many and it looks a little gypsy-ish, so I add white or silver," says Francis, 49. "It helps blend it all together."

As a gardener, Francis used to be all about pale Victorian colors. Now, like a lot of us, she's more free-spirited, "stepping out of my comfort zone."

"I'm into the hot-mama colors, the oranges, reds and purples, which go great with silver. Easier on the eye," she says.

Even dusty miller, the common gray-white bedding plant so ubiquitous in summer, does the job nicely, especially if planted in stripes along a wavy border. It intensifies nearby greens and softens pinks and purples, acting as chameleon and peacemaker and upgrading its image as an ordinary filler.

But silver plants are distinctive for more than their visual versatility. Nature has designed them to endure extremes of heat, cold and drought, and they grow with little water once established. Silvers, in other words, are made for a tough life - and the accidental gardener.

"If you garden at the seashore, if you have a rooftop garden, if you have crummy soil next to a hot driveway or a terrace around a swimming pool ... any really exposed, windy place or really, really sunny place ... there are so many silver plants that will do well for you," Bussolini says.

Now, about those deer on the mountainside.

Though they may devour everything under the sun when hungry enough, including plants on the "deer-won't-eat" list, they apparently don't like silvers much.

Silvers became silver as a response to drought and other stressful conditions, Bussolini says, and some of those same defenses and adaptations "make them unpalatable to deer."

She mentions the "very furry" lamb's ears and the "very, very hairy" silver salvia, which is almost feltlike.

"The deer get a mouthful of fuzz or a pungent smell, and they don't like it," she says.

Karl Gercens, curator of the silver garden at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., says the silver hue "reflects light to keep the plant from getting overheated and to keep moisture in." That's a desirable quality in these times of extreme weather - near-drought conditions one month, monsoonlike rains the next.

"Anyone who had a silver plant in the garden these last few weeks, with the heat and the rain, did pretty well," says Gercens, whose 40-foot-by-60-foot silver garden, in the Longwood conservatory, contains about 80 kinds of desert plants with a variety of silver foliage.

"They're very architectural," Gercens says of his charges. "A lot of light passes through the garden."

Fans of silvers praise their utility and diversity, along with their carefree ways. As Bussolini says, "I don't have time for fusspots."

But it's their beauty that gardeners mention again and again.

Some evening soon, when the air's cool and the moon's big, take a walk in your garden. Look at the clumps of catmint and mounds of sage, and you'll begin to understand.

Silvers inspire. They're bold. They glow. They're mysterious and ethereal.

"They really calm things down," Francis says.

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