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Fifteen Shades of Grey

Fiteen Shades of Grey

Here are fifteen great plants in shades of grey to shining silver. Some are rather “vanilla”, others are quite exotic, even dangerous. All are fascinating in their own way. Intrigued? Read on.

Common name: Lungwort
Pulmonaria hybrids

While many pulmonaria are spotted, several are evenly frosted with silver over the entire leaf. Great choices for lightening up a shady spot, their colorful early spring blooms are attractive to bees. (“Wort” means “plant” in middle English, and plants carrying wort in the name along with a body part were thought to be medicinally beneficial to that particular part of the body. The more you know.)

Common name: Cardoon
Cynara cardunculus

An ornamental artichoke (the stems of which are edible, but rarely grown as such in this country, unless you’re of Italian heritage), cardoon is a thriller in containers or in the garden. A biennial, after a mild winter the purple, thistle-like flower emerges from an artichoke-like bud and is quite pretty. Some varieties have even more attractive, finely cut foliage and are worth seeking out. 

Common name: Satiny Wormwood
Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’

A textural delight, ‘Silver Mound’ has fine feathery foliage with a shiny silver sheen. (Artemisia is also apparently an alliterative delight.) The form is nicely rounded though in locations of excess (water, fertilizer or shade) it can become sprawly. A gorgeous plant for the front of the border. Fun fact: members of the Artemisia family are the source of artemisinin, an anti-malaria drug.


Common name:Dusty Miller
Senecio cineraria

This little plant is often used in annual containers to provide silvery contrast to other colors, but it also makes a lovely bedding plant. Like most silver-leafed plants, it looks good with almost everything. A biennial, it will flower the second year after a mild winter with small, sunny yellow daisies-not surprising as it’s in the same family.

Common name: Lamb’s Ear
Stachys byzantia

The fuzzy grey leaves of Lamb’s Ear beg to be caressed. Young leaves are kitten-soft and shine in the sun. Flowers are pink-mauve but the stems are somewhat ungainly. Choose the cultivar ‘Helene von Stein’ if you want to maintain a tidy appearance as it rarely flowers. This heat lover tolerates average to dry soils and lots of sun, and will spread to fill in any empty spaces.





Common name: Lavender
Lavandula sp

Another delight for the senses, lavender is often thought of as a fragrance plant, which it certainly is, but the leaf textures available in different varieties are also great in the garden. The adorable “bunny ear” flowers of Spanish lavender are particularly attractive and loved by bees and butterflies.  

Common name: Perennial forget-me-not
Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost'

Another common name is Siberian bugloss, which has nothing to do with bugs, but is Greek for ox tongue, still...ewww. While regular forget-me-not is biennial (though will self-seed readily in the right place), Brunnera returns every year with sprays of dainty sky blue flowers in spring. The silvery leafed varieties add brightness to the semi-shady garden all season.

Common name: Japanese painted fern
Athyrium nipponicum pictum

A choice selection that no shade garden should be without, Japanese painted ferns are resplendent  in shades of silvery-grey, green and red that enhance the ferny texture and gently weeping form. This is a seriously sexy plant and you should have one. Or two. No one will judge you.

Common name: Spotted deadnettle
Lamium maculata

Lamium is another nice little garden plant with an unfortunate common name. (“Deadnettle” refers to the fact that though its leaves looks like nettle, it has no sting, or is “dead”). Both the leaves and the flowers are quite attractive, and most varieties will spread unagressively. Beware of planting Lamium galeobdolon, or yellow archangel, in its place-you will never be rid of it, nor will your neighbors.




Common name(s): Giant honey flower, Peanut butter plant
Melianthus major

Uncommon, maybe rightfully so, as it is toxic if ingested. (To be fair, it’s not the only thing in the garden that could kill you if you have a habit of chewing on the landscape). A large, fast growing plant with spectacular foliage and flowers, the leaves really do smell like peanut butter when you rub them. And no, just touching it won’t hurt you...though I’d wash my hands if I were you.  A nifty plant if you can find it.




Common name: Honeywort
Cerinthe major ssp. purpurasecens

Bluish, leathery, silver-spotted foliage, pendulous purple flowers that unfold like a scorpion’s tail, drought tolerant, bees love it’s uncommon. Sorry to tease. If you can find seed it is quite easy to grow, and may self-seed in following years. Seeds are also easy to keep. It does need a well-drained soil, so amend well. Makes a good cut flower (seal cut ends by heat for longer vase life) but generally too tall for containers.

Common name: Curry plant
Helichrysum italicum

While the leaves do smell somewhat of curry powder, it is not THE curry plant. It is, however, a great accent for containers and small plantings with spiky silver foliage, drought tolerance and a less fussy demeanor than lavender, which it resembles. (Sorry lavender, you know sometimes you can be like that)

Common name: Rose campion
Lychnis coronaria

If “subtle” is your middle name, this is not the plant for you. If your middle name is “I love screaming pink flowers”, your parents probably had it in for you. Rose campion (whose other common name is ‘catchfly’, so her parents were no better) does well in average soil with low fertility, and though it’s a short lived perennial or biennial, it readily self-seeds. (If your middle name is subtle, it also comes in delicate soft pink and white flowered varieties.)

Common name: Russian sage
Perovskia atriplicifolia

Great, tough textural plant with a long summer bloom time. Not bad as a single plant, stunning as a massed planting. If you plant Russian sage anywhere but in full sun It. Will. Flop. Look for the variety ‘Little Spire’ for a shorter, more controlled form. Bees and butterflies love it, deer generally don’t.

Festuca glauca 1

Common name: Blue fescue 'Elijah Blue'
Festuca glauca

Common? Maybe. But it’s the one you didn't notice that you may really end up falling for. Blue fescue retains it’s steely silver-blue color and spiky texture well, as long as it gets enough sunlight. A workhorse in the garden, all Elijah needs is some room-if you crowd him it's not going to work out.




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Air Plants

Air Plants

Air plants, or tillandsias, are low maintenance, virtually pest-free houseplants. Because they don’t need soil to grow, they can be placed virtually anywhere that receives enough sunlight, and in many types of containers-or none at all.

Though air plants have interesting textures and shapes, they are most beautiful when in bloom. The colorful inflorescence (flowering stalk) can last for months.

Tillandsias are members of the bromeliad family, which also includes pineapples and Spanish moss. Most are epiphytes, meaning they grow on other plants but are not parasitic. Unlike most other plants, their small roots serve to attach them to their host rather than take up nutrients. Instead, they absorb nutrition from their leaves.

Aside from their peculiar beauty, their popularity stems from how incredibly easy they are to care for, and how difficult they are to kill. Not to mention, they have virtually no insect or disease problems. All they require is being submerged in plain water once or twice a week-even fertilizing is optional.

Part of the fun of growing tillandsias is the many ways that they can be displayed. They can be set in any pretty container-no soil needed-or suspended with fishing line. Terrariums of all kinds are ideal for tillandsias, providing the high humidity they thrive in. They can even be glued or wired to any support you can think of (except for pressure treated wood, as the chemicals are toxic to them).

The best glue for mounting tillandsias is an adhesive called E-6000, but hot glue or Liquid Nails will also work. Glue the base of the plant to your surface, keeping as much glue off the roots as possible. You may need to wire or tie the plant in place until the glue dries fully.


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Plant a Pollinator Garden

Plant a Pollinator Garden

While honey bees are currently the rock stars of the insect world, there are many other species of bees, butterflies, flies, and beetles that also pollinate fruits, vegetables and flowers. You can encourage these other pollinators to visit your garden with some plant and cultural choices.


Choosing Plants for Pollinators

Many of the non-honey bee pollinators are native insects. Their preferred plants are those that are also natives. Native plants can easily be added to existing landscapes, and many highly ornamental garden plants from trees to perennials are North Carolina natives.

Other plants to use are annuals. Because annuals flower so profusely, they offer plenty of pollen and nectar to attract pollinators. Adding annuals to beds and using them in containers will not only benefit native pollinators, it will add color to your garden all season. (A note-there are very few native annuals available.)

Planning a succession of bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall will give pollinators a steady supply of pollen and nectar. Many native pollinators are active earlier in the spring than honey bees, who don’t forage in temperatures below 55F.

Carpenter bee and green sweat bee sharing a sunflower. Both are important pollinators.

Carpenter bee and green sweat bee sharing a sunflower. Both are important pollinators.

Cultural Choices

While you can certainly add pollinator-friendly plants to your existing landscape, creating a more natural “garden”, perhaps to the back or side of your property, lets you do other things to benefit pollinators.

Plant large patches of the same variety rather than “dotting” them through the garden. This lets pollinators forage efficiently.

Leave some areas of soil bare, preferably with a dry, sunny exposure. Many ground dwelling solitary bees will choose such sites for nesting. In other areas, leave fallen stems, twigs and leaves “as is” to attract species that nest under or shelter in detritus.

Don’t use any pesticides in your pollinator area. Even if unwanted plant pests do show up, they are usually kept to a reasonable level in a natural ecosystem. Minimize use of pesticides in other areas of your property as much as possible.

Go easy on controlling weeds also. Many flowering weeds are attractive to pollinators (when weeds are not growing where they are “in the way” we call them wildflowers!)


Provide for Other Needs

Keep a patch of bare soil moist to provide mud for mason bees (mason bees are up to 60 times more efficient pollinators than honey bees, so they are worth keeping around!) Carpenter bees nest in soft wood, so a few logs of fir or pine may encourage them to nest near your garden. You can also put out bee nesting boxes. These can be as simple as a block of wood with holes drilled in it.

Provide a water source. A saucer filled with pebbles, and filled with water to just below the top of the stones is attractive to butterflies and bees.

Once you have your pollinator attracting plants in place, it may take a while (even more than a single season) for your insect friendly oasis to be discovered, particularly if you live in an urban area. But be patient and your efforts will be rewarded!




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