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PHOTO: Jessica Walliser
Flowering perennials certainly offer lots of color to the farm’s garden, but color and interest can also come from perennial foliage. While chartreuse and burgundy foliage plants are lovely, one of my favorite groups of plants to add a pop of soft color to the landscape are gray-leaved perennials.
Why Use Gray-Leaved Perennials
The perks of gray-leaved perennials are many. When the weather is hot and sunny, a gray and white color palette feels calm and cool. Gray foliage also looks spectacular at night. If your perennial border is near a deck or patio where you spend a lot of time in the evening, gray-leaved perennials will reflect the moonlight and “glow” in the twilight.
Another added benefit of gray-leaved perennials is the fact that many of them are deer resistant. Often the gray coloration on the leaves is due to the presence of tiny, reflective leaf hairs. These hairs make the leaves unpalatable to deer (and often rabbits, too). There are also lots of gray-leaved plants that are in the herb family as well, meaning they have a high essential oil content in their leaves which deer and rabbits often dislike.
One final reason for using gray-leaved perennials: They can really draw the eye down the length of a perennial bed, especially if they’re used at uniform intervals down throughout the bed. You might not consider gray an eye-catching color, but it is, especially when it’s tucked in among brighter colors such as blues, oranges and yellows.
The Best Gray-Leaved Perennials for Your Garden
Though hundreds of plants with gray foliage exist, here are a few excellent choices for the garden. All are winter hardy to at least USDA zone 5, and all will return to the garden bigger and better with each passing season.
- Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): With gray foliage and upright, wispy spires of purple-blue summer flowers, Russian sage is an airy, yet tough-as-nails, plant. It’s drought tolerant and thrives in dry gardens. Considered a woody perennial, an annual haircut in late March is the only care it requires. The flowers are long lasting and the heavy fragrance of the foliage means Bambi totally ignores it.
- Artemisia (Artemisia cultivars): There are many lovely cultivars of this silver beauty, including Silver King, Silver Queen, Silver Mound and more. Though the flowers are not very exciting, the foliage is pretty stellar. Requiring very little care, artemisia’s serrated silvery leaves make it a garden champ.
- Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum): Among my favorite native perennials, mountain mint’s silvery sheen comes not from the foliage, but from the bracts (modified leaves found around the flowers). The soft gray color of this perennial, coupled with its upright growth, make it attractive as well as low maintenance—there’s no staking required. Plus, mountain mint is a real pollinator magnet.
- Sedum (Sedum spp): The thick, succulent leaves of sedums make this a great choice for water-wise landscapes and hot, sunny areas. While sedum comes in many different foliage colors, the grays are among my favorites. Sedum spreads fairly quickly and makes a great groundcover, too.
- Large-leaved lamb’s ear Helen von Stein (Stachys Helen von Stein): While lamb’s ear has long been a perennial favorite of gardeners, this newer variety has far larger, denser leaves covered in a mat of wool-like hairs with a silvery shine. This gray-leaved perennial is oh so soft to the touch, too.
- Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum): When discussing gray-leaved perennials, it’s important not to leave this little guy off the list. An excellent ground cover, snow-in-summer smothers the ground with tiny gray leaves topped each spring with white, cup-shaped flowers.