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Bring some gray into the garden for magical effects

Plants with gray or silver foliage save water, while adding beauty and contrast to the garden.
Plants with gray or silver foliage save water, while adding beauty and contrast to the garden. Special to The Bee

“I think of gray-leaved plants as jewelry for the garden,” said Daisy Mah, retired curator of the WPA Rock Garden in Sacramento’s William Land Park. “They go so well with other colors, it makes the garden magical.”

With that in mind, Mah strategically placed plants with gray foliage among the many shades of green throughout the garden. It’s easy to see why: They soften bold colors – bright reds, purples, yellows – yet blend well with pastels. Paired with white flowers they give the garden a feeling of elegance. Some, like the gray-leaf hellebores, add architectural interest to the garden, while others, with their soft, velvety leaves, add texture you want to touch. The damp foliage sparkles on winter mornings when the dew is heavy on the ground. They bravely – and easily – weather our scathing Northern California summers.

The color palette is diverse: soft gray, blue-tinged, gray-green, downy white, gleaming silver. Foliage comes spiky, ferny, serrated, rounded, oblong and more. You’ll find huge, felty white verbascum leaves; tiny, glossy gray dianthus; soft, wooly lamb’s ears; frosty silver snow-in-summer; cool blue-gray fescue; matte gray agaves; ferny lavender cotton.

A walk through the garden tells the story best: The Spanish lavender sprawling across the beds looks fresh even during the hottest part of a summer’s day, its spiky foliage basking in the sun. The jagged leaves of the sea holly fondly nicknamed “Miss Willmott’s Ghost” are all about drama: silvery white edged in bright blue. Nearby, the delicate gray spires of Russian sage insinuate themselves among the bright green, strappy kniphofia foliage, while the dianthus carpets the ground at the base of its taller neighbors. And when it’s really hot, the lavender cotton sends up masses of cheerful yellow button-size flowers.

“They’re gems, really,” Mah said, “equipped to deal with any combination of sun, heat and drought with minimal care and little water.”

Robin Parer, owner of Geraniacea Nursery in Marin County, said gray-leafed plants are “perfect for this climate because the surfaces of the leaves are covered with masses of tiny hairs. They reflect light, protect the plants from acute sunburn and conserve water so they can survive hot, dry, windy conditions. The hairs actually trap moisture. That’s why they look best in full sun. There’s something really wonderful about gray foliage and bright blue skies.”

While most gray-leaf plants are sun lovers, there are also some that prefer moist, shady conditions. These include lamium (dead nettle), begonias and some ferns. Their coloring comes from air pockets beneath the surface of the leaves. Often the leaves look mottled, or as though someone splashed them with silver paint.

The last group of gray plants, which includes succulents, agaves and yuccas, tend more toward the blue end of the spectrum. They get their coloring from a waxy coating on the surface. It acts much like the surface hairs on other gray-leaf plants in protecting the plant from sunshine and drying winds, as well as conserving water.

There are hundreds of gray and silver perennials and shrubs from which to choose, but few trees. The shrubs are generally on the small side, although ones like butterfly bush can get 6 to 10 feet tall each year. The trees include some conifers, several types of eucalyptus and a stunning silver pear.

Mah recommends mixing grays into the landscape rather than solely relying on them.

“I loved them so much that at first I couldn’t get enough of them, but I learned that too many, especially in our bright sunlight, can make the garden look too bright, even harsh,” Mah said. “They’re at their best planted with other colors. It makes the garden so much more interesting.”

Planted at the end of the pathway, gray-foliage plants lure you into the garden. They soften edges of borders. Gray plants catch the moonlight, and during the full moon they are especially beautiful. And many of them are deer-resistant.

Gray-foliage plants weren’t an immediate hit with gardeners. For decades they were relegated to the medicinal garden: horehound for coughs, yarrow for treating wounds. A sage leaf in your shoe was supposed to protect you when you traveled. Thyme was used for strewing on the floor to mask unpleasant smells in rooms. Others were used for everything from preventing baldness to making poultices to keeping ants and moths out of food. They were regarded as useful, not ornamental, plants. But they slowly made their way into gardens.

In the early 1900s, English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll planted a gray border at Munstead Wood, her garden in Surrey, England. She wanted it to be a soothing border, and used only plants with pink or white flowers to complement the gray and silver foliage. She used, among other plants, dusty miller, lamb’s ears, lavender cotton, yuccas, yarrow and carnations.

Another famous English gardener, Vita Sackville-West, planted a white garden at Sissinghurst Castle in the mid-20th century.

The focal point was a silver-leafed pear surrounded by artemesias, lamb’s ears and irises. She wanted only white flowers among her gray and silver foliage, so she planted white camellias, white clematis and white agapanthus as an accent to the gray-leafed plants.

In a formal setting, Sackville-West planted an explosion of plants and let them reseed and come up where they wanted, albeit with an invisible hand of control.

Sackville-West was also a writer and wrote a column about her garden. Her readers followed her every word. The white garden craze had begun, and it brought gray-foliage plants into popularity along with it.

Decades later, visitors still flock to Sissinghurst, now a part of the National Trust, to see the white garden.

California gardeners, especially those in the Central Valley and lower foothills, are in a unique position to incorporate as many gray-leaf plants as they want in to the garden. Our climate – no summer rain and lots of sunshine – is perfect for them.

Beth Chatto, author of “The Dry Garden,” summed it up this way: “It sounds so obvious, but it is worth stating, I think, that I find it best to plant plenty of something that looks good most of the time rather than struggle to keep alive plants which at best only accentuate the fact that what you have to offer them is not what they need.”

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