Shades of Grey

Silvery combination in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Silvery combination (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

As summer winds down and fall colors blaze, a few soothers can help balance the display.  And that’s where grey foliage serves as a welcome moderator.  Surprisingly, grey plants can add more drama than some of the boldest flowers and foliage.  By simply mixing some different silver leaved forms and textures, you can create a visual wonderland that is both calming and tranquil.  And don’t we all need a peaceful escape every now and again?

Helen von Stein's frosty foliage in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Helen von Stein’s frosty foliage (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

For a short form of subdued color, I love the large leaved, soft and fuzzy lambs ear stachys byzantina ‘Helen von Stein’.  She fills the position in a very attractive way and unlike other stachys; Helen has broader, velvety textured leaves that will pack a punch without the distracting flowers of other cultivars. Not to say she won’t produce an occasional blossom, but the few that shoot up are complementary and easily removed if desired.  ‘Helen von Stein’ happily travels around the base of other plants in any sunny, well drained (zone 4-8) garden.  The roots are easily pulled when it gets too overpowering, and fall clean up is a gentle raking that removes all the spent foliage in minutes.

Cardoon foliage in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Cardoon foliage (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

For upright platinum foliage, I have a few favorites: cardoon and plectranthus are fabulous annuals, and perennial mountain mint, pycnanthemum muticum, is a dependable bee magnet as well as a looker.

The cardoon, cynara cardunculus, is from the artichoke family, and its monumental pewter serrated leaves are a dynamic focal point as they reach up and out into the garden like a fountain.  The lower stalks can yellow as the cardoon’s new growth emerges from the center, but are easily removed without noticing.  If weather is warm enough, long enough, this zone 7 plant can reach about 5′ tall by 4′ wide and will produce purple thistle flowers.  My zone 5 garden doesn’t usually provide enough heat for blooms, but I am more than satisfied with the performance from its prickly form alone.

Plectranthus foliage in A GardenFor All by Kathy Diemer

Plectranthus foliage (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

There are a wide variety of annual plectranthus, but my heart is warmed by plectranthus argentatus, also known as silver spurflower.  Argentatus has an unusual growth pattern, sometimes up, sometimes down, which allows it to be a wonderful companion mixed in with other perennials or shrubs.  Ultimately, it comes up for sun and air, but it will grow along the soil surface (sometimes re-rooting) and then pop up between another plant.  I love the spurflower’s quirky personality and charm, and although a zone 10 annual, it will hang on to the bitter end (frost) thriving and flowering all over the place.  Planted in with my lambs ears, plectrantus’ subtle textural differences are quite complementary, yet it becomes a dynamic partner when paired with bold pink, purple or red blossoms.

Mountain Mint in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Mountain Mint with roses (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Last, but not least, is the delectable perennial mountain mint.  Native pycnanthmum muticum grows to 36″ tall and is topped with soft grey horizontal petals that surround a delicate pinkish white flower head.  The flower is irresistible to bees and butterflies, and for we humans the spearmint scent from the leaves is an added bonus!  Despite the height, I plant pycnanthmum muticum at the front of the border and along walkways so its minty essence can be enjoyed as I stroll by.  And when many other perennials have succumbed to mildew and defoliation, mountain mint still looks fresh and vibrant in the late fall garden.  Although I do cut mountain mint down before winter, the only other maintenance required is a touch of root pulling to control it’s wanderlust.  Rest assured that pycnanthmum muticum is not a tyrant like other mints; it is content staying within bounds while providing pleasant silvery hues to your landscape and habitat for native insects as well.

Consider adding some platinum plants to your palette next spring and see what combinations you conjure up . . .


  1. I like the title!

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A Garden for All