Gray and Silver Plant Ideas

Give your garden a color makeover: gray and silver are the new white.

Garden with Splashes of White

Garden with Splashes of White

Photo by: Photo by Felder Rushing

Photo by Felder Rushing

No need for a full-fledged white garden - simply add some here and there for punching up colors

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For years, my grandmother kept a chipped old life-size concrete chicken in a small flower bed overflowing with tall, multi-colored zinnias. I used to marvel at how the faded white paint on the ersatz bird echoed the ghostly-gray powdery mildew mold that sometimes coated the zinnia foliage. The dull contrast actually seemed to highlight the brightly-hued flowers.

Worlds away stylistically but in a surprisingly similar fashion, I later noted during garden travels how marble statues and urns of classic European gardens such as Versailles in France led visitors visually, particularly at dusk or on overcast wintry days.

Ideas and Suggestions for Drought Tolerant Landscaping

Ideas and Suggestions for Drought Tolerant Landscaping

Agave americana is a classic gray foliage plant for mild-winter areas.

And so it goes with using plants with white, gray, or silvery foliage in shrub beds, flower borders, and any fashion of container. They can range from nearly pure white to gray, gray-green, and with a bluish cast, to a shiny silver hue, all with darker and lighter tones or patches of variegation.

Not only does their pale or shimmery foliage all but glow at dusk and light up gloomy shade and dark corners – including indoors - but when used on their own, gray and silver plants can lead the eye while mellowing the landscape, taming intense colors, or serving as buffers between design changes. They also help bring out the best in brighter colors, which shine a bit more with the contrast, and continue to create interest when nearby flowers are finished or not yet in bloom.

Silver tinged Japanese Painted Fern

Silver tinged Japanese Painted Fern

Photo by: Photo by Felder Rushing

Photo by Felder Rushing

Silvery tinged plants tend to stand out more even in shade than duller gray foliage

Gray vs. Silver

There are a couple of subtle differences in how gray plants and silvery plants work in gardens. Both help tone down hot colors like red, purple, orange, and yellow, but while soothing white or gray plants fade into or separate color clashes, silvery plants with their somewhat metallic sheen are more eye-catching and contrasting or stand out, often reflecting sun or moonlight. 

Silvery leaf Tradescantia

Silvery leaf Tradescantia

Photo by: Photo by Felder Rushing

Photo by Felder Rushing

Silvery variegated "aluminum plant" shines with reflective stripes.

What Makes Them Tick 

There is a reason why plants with silver or gray color are different. Many have foliage that is waxy and biologically adapted to tolerate and reflect intense sun, and those with furry or hairy foliage catch and disperse rainfall. When they get too much water, these plants often grow leggy and turn dull looking. Some, such as the popular lamb’s ears and garden sage, simply melt into mush when planted in hot, humid, rainy climates.

Good Selections

My garden friends accuse me of over-using dusty miller and Artemisia in flower beds and pots, but I depend on them because they are easy to grow, trouble-free, and readily available all season at garden centers. But there are so many more (one summer I almost went blind photographing dozens of different kinds in various flower shows and botanic gardens). Here are a few of my personal favorites: 

Dieffenbachia

Dieffenbachia

Photo by: Photo by Felder Rushing

Photo by Felder Rushing

Indoor plants with bright leaves or variegation add light and interest to otherwise dreary greens

Indoors, I brighten dull spots with specially-selected varieties of dumb cane (Diffenbachia), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), Tradescantia, and Peperomias that have bold splashes of white or silvery green variegation. In sunny winter windows indoors, and on my patio and deck, 

I have containers filled with gray and silvery Agaves, Sedums, Echeverias, Santolina, curry plant (Helichrysum), Mexican ghost plant (Graptopetalum) and several species of gray or silvery Sansevieria.

In addition to the dusty miller (Senecio) and Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, flower beds brimming with all sorts of foliage and flowering plants are both spiced up and toned down with silver sage (Salvia argentea), oversized cardoon plants (Cynara), snow-in-the-summer (Cerastium), Russian sage (Perovskia), Giant Silver Mullein (Verbascum), Dianthus, and Texas sage (Leucophyllum). Wish I had room for a silver dollar eucalyptus.

Silver and gray plants really stand out in mixed gardens

Silver and gray plants really stand out in mixed gardens

For a big dash of bold, add a single large, striking gray plant such as Giant Silver Mullein.

My newest shade garden, which is overhung with ghostly strands of our native gray Spanish moss, features or will soon have white Aztec grass (Ophiopogon), ‘Silver Bouquet’ lungwort (Pulmonaria), groundcover Lamium, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, several white variegated Hostas, Japanese painted fern (Athyrium) and scattered silvery-variegated Heucheras. 

No need for an all-out, romantic “white garden” – white, gray, and silvery plants have many uses! Wish I had more room or suitable climate for more…Meanwhile, here’s to toning down even my gray and silver plants with concrete chickens and other pale garden statuary!

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