How To Use Silver & Gray In The Garden

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The Silver Garden At Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. Photo by Larry Albee.

Silvery foliage makes a lovely backdrop for other plants. Plants with silver and gray foliage are unusual enough that they readily attract our attention. They are quite different than the typical green leafed plant we're accustomed to seeing, and their strikingly different look provides us with many visually appealing uses in the garden, as companion and specimen plants.

The deserts and arid lands of the world are rich in plants with silvery grey foliage, because it helps reflect the sunlight and its drying heat. These same plants often have thin leaves, which lose less water than big, wide leaves. The plants discussed here have foliage with thin, gray, silver and even white leaves, which makes them exceeding well adapted to hot, dry growing conditions and less-than-ideal soils. They are the perfect choice for xeric landscapes.

3 Ways To Use Silver & Gray Plants In Garden Design

  1. Backdrop: Place taller silver/gray plants in the rear of planting beds, where they create a backdrop for shorter flowering plants and plants with green or blue foliage.
  2. Groundcover: Place low-growing silver/gray groundcovers under taller flowering plants to cover soil, reduce heat, and offset foliage and blooms
  3. Mix: Pair both tall and low-growing silver/gray plants with ornamental grasses to create a beautiful, monochromatic blue-gray-green landscape. Blue bladed grasses look even more exotic when contrasted with gray or silver. Green bladed grasses look less common when they are next to gray or silver.

Favorite Silver & Gray Perennials

  • Artemesia 'Powis Castle' (Powis Castle Silver Sage) - is a true non-blooming silver plant. It grows in most any climate, even humid heat. This is a very underused ornamental sage. With dissected silver-gray foliage, it is the perfect companion plant to use with other flowering perennials and ornamental grasses to bring out interesting contrasts of leaf color and texture. It almost never flowers, thus maintaining its neat appearance with no extra effort. Not at all fussy as to soil type, "Powis Castle" is also quite drought tolerant.
  • Agastache rupestris (Licorice Mint Hyssop) - one of the all-time great perennials with fine textured, highly aromatic gray leaves. This is one of the best, most durable species in the Agastache family. With smoky orange flowers held by lavender calyxes, the entire plant is scented like licorice and mint and attracts hummingbirds. A High Country Gardens introduction. 
  • Oenothera fremonti 'Shimmer' (Shimmer Primrose) is a low-growing perennial with unique foliage that goes from green to pewter-gray by mid-summer. The extremely narrow gray-green, almost silver leaves have such incredible texture that it is invaluable when contrasting with other colors and types of foliage. I recommend pinching the stem tips several times in spring to create more branching and "thicken up" the plant with more foliage. Profuse yellow flowers too.

Favorite Silver & Gray Shrubs

  • Silver Leaf Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus La Plata) is a showy native shrub that stands out in the landscape with its attractive, finely textured silver-gray foliage and eye-catching display of golden-yellow flowers beginning in late summer-early fall. Sure to draw a cloud of butterflies to your yard.
Silver Leaf Rabbitbrush provides a silvery-grey backdrop with yellow flowers, to offset Perovskia (russian Sage)

Favorite Silver & Gray Groundcovers

  • Achillea ageratifolia (Greek Yarrow) is a low growing perennial with attractive evergreen, silver foliage and a late spring display of bright white flowers on short stems. An excellent small scale groundcover for planting in hot, sunny conditions.
  • Thymus lanuginosus (Wooly Thyme) is a superb low care groundcover thyme with soft, billowing mounds of gray foliage and vigorous spreading stems that root as they spread across the soil. It rarely flowers. An ideal crack filler between flagstone and pavers.
  • Stachys Silver Carpet (Silver Carpet Lamb's Ear) is a handsome, fuzzy, grey-leaved groundcover that thrives in problem areas such as dry shade and poor soils. Silver Carpet Lamb's Ear is a drought resistant (xeric), non-flowering perennial plant. Use the foliage to contrast nicely with green and blue leaved plants in the xeric garden.
Silvery foliage makes a lovely backdrop for other plants. Shown here: Salvia pachyphylla (foreground), Prunus cistina, Chrysothamnus (rear).
Silvery foliage makes a lovely backdrop for other plants. Shown here: Salvia pachyphylla (foreground), Prunus cistina, Chrysothamnus (rear).
Echinacea angustifolia shown with silvery Artemisia
Echinacea angustifolia shown with silvery Artemisia
Monarda fistulosa 'Wichita Mountains' in front of Artemisia filofolia
Monarda fistulosa 'Wichita Mountains' in front of Artemisia filofolia
The blooms of Ratibida columnifera 'Yellow' stand out when blended with Artemisia frigida.
The blooms of Ratibida columnifera 'Yellow' stand out when blended with Artemisia frigida.