Use the color silver in your garden

Light up your line with silvery shrubs
Photo 1
The Emersons planted Icicles subshrubs (Helichrysum thianschanicum ‘Icicles’, Zones 8-11), for cool lighting under trees in their Oklahoma backyard. These clumps could be modeling Russian olive or willow groves. Above the boxcar, seafoam artemisia (one of 300 artemisias in Zones 3-9), also called curlicue sage (Artemisia versicolor ‘Seafoam’, Zones 4-10), stays well under one foot.
Nancy Norris
1 inset
Nancy Norris
Photo 2
In southern Maine, Terry Norton planted another great artemisia—Silvermound. A filigree of silver cascades beside a cleverly raised point-to-point streetcar line allowing for bridges and contrasting elevations. The inset shows the broader leaves of dusty miller.
Nancy Norris
Photo 3
15' Acacias grow all over Arizona, so it makes sense that Kal and Barbara Miller would try to dwarf a Palo Blanco or Willard’s Acacia (Acacia willardiana, Zones 9-11) on their Whiskey Flats Railroad. They also grow gray bubblegum sage (Leucophyllum pruinosum ‘Sierra Bouquet’, Zones 8-11). Both tolerate heavy pruning.
Nancy Norris
Photo 4
On their JMB Garden Railroad in Ontario, Canada, Julie and Jim Barber soften a row of concrete cabins with Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, Zones 4-9). Inset: The author found an Argentinian lip fern (Cheilanthes buchtienii, Zones 8-9) at Berkeley Botanical Garden in California. It has gray fronds only 4" long.
Nancy Norris
4 inset
Nancy Norris
Photo 5
The Gardens on Spring Creek, Fort Collins, Colorado, had help from a local garden-railway society installing an automated push-button railway. In hot sun surrounded by glass walls, the scenery needs these succulents—sedums and sempervivums. Inset: cobweb houseleek (Sempervivum arachnoideum, Zones 3-10)
Nancy Norris
5 inset
Nancy Norris
Photo 6
Talk about color contrast—night and day. Dan Saporito knows you’ll find his metallic black bumper at the stub siding. The succulent, Chinese dunce caps (Orostachys iwarenge, Zones 6-11), eventually forms pearly-white cones (inset) as they begin to flower on the D&P Garden Railway.
Nancy Norris
Photo 7
On the Fort Walt Railroad in Colorado, Ron Bregenzer, his sons, and their sons, all need to get in and out of a busy railroad running multiple trains for dozens of guests. Unfussy groundcover keeps everyone moving. Silver-leaved dianthus lays out a carpet for walking or sitting if a train needs tweaking.
Nancy Norris
Photo 8
Early morning, we appreciate woolly thyme’s (Thymus pseudolanuginosis, Zones 4-10) silver cast when massed along scale buildings, bridges, and rocks, as in Dave and Jean Gross’ San Miguel Southern Railroad in Colorado. Fine “woolly” hairs on each leaf reflect the light. Silver thyme (T. x citriodorus ‘Argenteus’, Zones 4-10) shows more silver due to white variegation.
Nancy Norris
Photo 9
During long winters on Manny and Veronika Neronha’s Rhode Island railroad, evergreen leaves in full sun can’t access moisture from frozen roots. Luckily, a waxy coating on white spruce leaves (Picea glauca var.) prevents excess transpiration and gives the plant a pearly glow.
Nancy Norris
Let the luster of silver foliage shine on your railway day and night. Leaves in shades of gray grow waxy coatings or whitish hairs that reflect light onto nearby trains and buildings. Modeling 1:1 nature, stream embankments produce clumps of trees with white undersides of leaves (willow, poplar, Russian olive). Dusty, dry roadsides may attract low, gray pioneer plants (sage, wormwood, grasses). In the desert, succulents blend silver/gray into greenish-blue/silver (chalk sticks, ghost plant, cacti).

Frothy fine foliage

Two fuzzy-leaved groups, helichrysum (curry) and artemisia (wormwood), contain dozens of white-to-gray species for our railway gardens. In photo 1, the Emersons model tree clumps using Icicles helichyrsum and Seafoam artemisia. Trailing over rocky embankments, another helichrysum, licorice plant (H. petiolare, Zones 9-11), brightens the way with gray felt-like buttons.

In photo 2, Silvermound artemisia (A. schmidtiana ‘Silvermound’, Zones 3-9) cascades down the hillside crowned with silver buds—proof that silver complements nearby lavender roofs and flowers. Elsewhere, railway-gardener Terry Norton repeats Silvermound to contrast dark-green trees near a white church. The most popular artemisia, the perennial dusty miller (A. stelleriana, Zones 3-9), shows hairy, almost-white leaves that beg to be touched (photo 2 inset).

Now that I’ve become more conscious of grain elevators (Aug. 2017 GR “The great grain-elevator journey”), I noticed a bank of gray silos near a silver-green acacia at Kal and Barbara Miller’s model farm in Phoenix (photo 3). When plants “serve as a foil,” they draw attention to contrasting or similar-colored structures. This concept is more evident in photo 4, in which a Japanese painted fern almost disappears next to Julie Barber’s concrete tourist cabins but is rescued by its shiny-feathered texture. Consider planting a gray grove near your metallic water tower or bridge.

Cover the earth
If ever a group of plants could paint the ground in silver, it would be succulents. Photo 5 shows a desert masterpiece created in the demo railway in northern Colorado at the Gardens on Spring Creek. Blooming hen-and-chicks form cactus-like trees above mounds of tight silver-blue stonecrop. Gray rosettes tinged with purple, pink, red, and teal await your shopping cart at local nurseries. Together they form an arid ecosystem. Individually, a specimen or small cluster points to a special feature nearby (photo 6), as with Dan Saporito’s Chinese dunce caps cozying up to a cool bumper.

erennial, low, non-succulents can help you get around in your garden railroad. Stepping on tough, silvery plants means your pathway is lit up for safe evening runs. In photo 7, Ron Bregenzer’s cheddar pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus var., Zones 4-9) lay down a living carpet, as does the garden railroader’s standby, woolly thyme, in Dave and Jean Gross’ pasture, photo 8. More thyme varieties can be found here:

Designed to adapt

Typically, rock gardens, screes, mock rockslides, and ledge plantings use rock to contrast the plant texture and complement color. Where much rock is gray or silver, we can choose from the plants here or in the sidebar to mirror that rock. Even red/brown rock is often covered in gray lichens or mineral streaks. Photo 4 inset shows a slender lip-fern import that is both xeric and able to grow in the cracks of rocks. Some states offer their own native species of gray lip ferns.

Conifers, like Colorado blue spruce and Manny and Veronika Neronha’s white spruce (photo 9), have evolved an adaptation covering their needle-like leaves. A waxy bloom protects these evergreens from drying out; all winter roots are frozen fast, preventing water from going up to leaves on warm winter days. Avoid destroying this “bloom” with oily sprays.

Ivory hairs, waxy bloom, and leathery silver blisters work as defense mechanisms against predators like deer and rabbits. Gray plants abound in the Mediterranean, inland Australia, and the US Southwest, where silver reflects light, reducing water loss. Most gray plants won’t mind it a bit if you give them extra water, provided you allow for drainage. Let cool biological features draw you into the game of design.
Gray matter

From past “Plant portraits,” find silver stories with photos via GR’s online search bar. Subscribers have access to all for free.
Dec ’99: Woolly veronica
May ’05: Dusty miller
Nov ’05: Curlicue sage
Nov ’05: Lavender
Sep ’06: Dwarf lady’s mantle
Feb '08: Brass buttons
Feb ’08: Partridge feather
Oct ’08: Skeleton bush
Jun ’09: Snow-in-summer
Oct ’09: Lavender cotton
Oct ’09: Lawson falsecypress
Aug ’12: Silver carpet
Oct ’03: Pussytoes
Feb ’18: Scab plant
Even in the rain, Richard’s New Zealand native brightens the day with sparkling tiny leaves lined up in rows against almost-black stems.
Nancy Norris
Like tumbleweed with a web of leafless silver stems, cushion bush stops us before stepping over the travertine bridge. Few plants blend so well with steam.
Nancy Norris
Jan Schreier’s alpine mouse ears cover the ground with a low, stepable patch of pewter covered in tiny white flowers. This native Cerastium alpinum lanatum (Zones 2-9) is similar to the slightly taller gray nursery plant, mouse ears (Cerastium tomentosum, Zones 3-9), also called snow-in-summer.
Jan Schreier
Regional gardening report
Zones are USDA Hardiness Zones
Why do you like your silver-leaved plants?

Richard Murray
Millbrae, California, Zone 10
One of my favorite silver plants was an unknown variety for many years. When I first found the plant in a local nursery, it was in a five-gallon pot, unkempt, with many scrawny octopus arms stretching out on the ground. The vertical section was quite open and ragged. The color, though, was great and the leaf size was quite small. There was no label on the plant. At the time the lack of a name didn’t bother me but after a year I went back to the nursery to get identification. Unfortunately, they no longer carried the plant. In the meantime, I completely cut off all the octopus arms and gently pruned back the rest of the plant. It has taken a couple of additional prunings to get the plant into a tree shape. I have since placed some buildings around the plant, and it now blends in nicely as a street tree. The silver color is a welcome contrast to the many shades of green plants and the few yellow plants. Just this year Nancy Norris suggested that the plant might be a Hebe. I searched Google images, and it seems the proper name is Hebe pimeleoides ‘Quicksilver’ (Zones 7-11).

One additional silver plant that I like has an unrecognizable name of Calocephalus brownii (Zones 10-11). Its purpose was to blend with a stone bridge but to contrast with the adjacent green plants. Contrasting colors prevent a monotone of green. The plant has a tendency for some of the branches to die back each year. Unlike other plants, where dead branches need to be cut out for aesthetic purposes, the dead branches of this plant blend in well with the live branches. In fact, the dead branches provide structural support for the plant, which otherwise might flop over when the live branches get too long. The plant seems to do so well with a minimum of water that I even removed its closest emitter.

Jan Schreier

Minnesota, Zone 4
Silver carpet
This is a great little alpine plant that stays compact and doesn’t take over the garden. Its flowers are dainty and the plant looks fantastic in scale. I’ve placed scale deer and moose in the field of alpine mouse ears, and you can just hear the “homeowner’s” frustration with the wildlife eating their plants! I can relate, as bunnies have been mowing down all my mini hostas, but they leave the alpine mouse ears alone.


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