Going gray

    Plants can’t talk, I realize this. But I still believe they can tell us a lot about themselves, and where they will be happy living. By taking cues from the particular qualities of a plant, it’s possible to infer quite a bit about its likes and habits.

    A good example are plants with silver and gray foliage. As a rule, these plants are happy in hot, dry conditions. The unusual color of the leaves is the result of a coating of fine, light hairs covering the leaf surfaces, which give the foliage a velvety or woolly texture. The hairs reflect sunlight like a mirror, preventing it from scorching the plant while reducing the internal temperature of the leaves. Keeping the leaves cool prevents water loss, or transpiration, through the foliage. This hirsute adaptation makes it possible for certain plants to thrive in blazing sun with very little water.

    The last few weeks I’ve been working on putting in a long border using almost all gray plants. I didn’t start with the idea of a silver garden, but after a process of elimination I realized that the gray plants were the ones that were most likely to actually survive.

    The area is located at the base of a stone wall, and alongside a heavily-trafficked sidewalk. There’s so much glaring sun and reflected light that you can feel the sunburn after ten minutes out there. And my new garden bed is located very inconveniently from a water source, so irrigation involves filling a watering can many times, or dragging about 35 pounds of hose to the site. The reality is that these plants will never get watered after they establish themselves. And since I’m impatient, I want this spot finished now, the worst time to plant anything, given that we’re at what I can only pray is the hottest point of a particularly hot and dry summer.

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    Here’s the list of what I got. These are not rare or unusual plants, just standbys that are inexpensive and easy to find in general garden centers: ‘Munstead’, ‘Hidcote’, and ‘Grosso’ Lavender, ‘Moonshine’ Achillea, ‘Powis Castle’ and ‘Silver Brocade’ Artemisia, ‘Vera Jameson’ Sedum, and ‘Big Ears’ Stachys. As you can surmise by its name, the Stachys, known commonly as Lamb’s Ears, has big leaves. This is the one that might not work in the long run. Most silver plants have tiny leaves, the better for saving water.

    I also stuck in some of the tough, native Echinacea, or coneflower, for a break from all that gray, and this is the one plant that’s not doing so well. A prairie wildflower with some drought tolerance, I thought it might be tough enough to hang in there. Of the three coneflowers I planted one is dead, one is almost dead, and one looks terrible.

    I should have listened better to what that plant was telling me! A dry but fertile meadow I can handle, but please, have you ever seen me growing in the desert? I didn’t think so.

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