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Elegant Silvers

Kip reviews Elegant Silvers, by Jo Ann Gardner and Karen Bussolini


Ordinarily I would prefer not to review a book published two years ago, but Elegant Silvers is such a compelling and thorough treatment of a subject so important from a design standpoint, yet so rarely discussed in depth, that I have decided to override my normal inclinations. The neutral color in most gardens, the background against which all the other colors are viewed, the unifying matrix which separates and at the same time ties together the various hues, is green. Going by the book at hand, silver is the new green.

It should be noted that silver, in the context of foliage, includes everything from nearly white, through various grades of blue, to gray, and the plant choices available to gardeners searching for a vein of silver number in the hundreds. Artemisia, dusty miller, lavender, lamb's ears, and Colorado blue spruce are familiar examples.

Silver plants were mostly confined to the herb repertoire into the 1980s. If you wanted to see the full range of silvers available, you would most likely find them in an herb garden or in a specialty herb nursery. Gradually, the wider horticultural world became aware of the extraordinary beauty and practical uses of silver plants...

Ever since I began gardening seriously in 1985, I have often noticed how a frame of silver or gray would enhance the value of other colors in the garden, and it is a truism that blue combines well with almost everything. Reading Elegant Silvers has given me a better idea of why these two notions are so, and I am tempted to re-think the design habits I have acquired in the past 20 years.

Silvers are of three types: downy, waxy, and variegated. With the recent introduction of new silvery pulmonarias, heucheras, ferns, and brunneras, variegated plants have assumed more importance. While downy and waxy types are predominantly sun-lovers, variegated silvers thrive in shade, so their inclusion in the silver palate greatly extends landscaping possibilities.

Silver plants of the downy and waxy types are generally drought-tolerant and have become important elements in xeriscape designs. Xeriscaping is not confined to arid regions—it is "about conserving, not eliminating, the use of water." Even here in New England the concept is a valuable one. Every other year, it seems, we face water shortages.

Ah..., the variegated types. I must confess, from the first time I laid eyes on Athyrium goeringianum 'Pictum' (or A. nipponicum var. pictum), the Japanese painted fern, I have considered it the most beautiful plant in the world. If you know of a plant that can top it, then please let me know so I can steer clear of it in order to avoid an overdose of sheer aesthetic pleasure.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007