A touch of gray catches the light

With the onset of autumn and winter weather, the Rogue Valley becomes prone to bouts of fog. Some years, and in certain places, it is epidemic. What can a gardener who wants to brighten winter's drab color scheme do to pump life into the landscape? It may seem counter-intuitive, but planting gray-leaved plants in the garden will add sparkle and shine on the dreariest, darkest days of winter.

How does this work? Why not find some red or orange flowers or foliage and really brighten it up? Because the same strategy that worked in the bright sunshine of July isn't effective in January.

When there is abundant bright light, it tends to wash out colors. Ask any photographer if they like to take landscape shots at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. They'll tell you that colors fade in that harsh light. Therefore, we need the bright, warm colors to stand out and have effect.

The converse is true in winter. Since color is made up of reflected light, the more reflective colors will bounce back more light to our eyes and be noticed more under low-light conditions. In the garden world this explains how white flowers seem to pop out of the flowerbed as dusk approaches and the reds recede with the retreating sun.

The same is true in winter How does the gardener, now fully armed with all this information, take advantage of this phenomenon?

Garden viewing mainly takes place from the warm, dry confines of the home during the types of weather that favor the use of gray-foliaged plants. Be sure to locate these plants where they can be seen from the windows that are most often used during the daylight hours. They don't need to be the plants closest to the window, but may be most effective as individual specimens at some distance. You will be amazed at how these shrubs can jump out of the background like beacons on some of the most miserable days of the year.

Many gray-leaved plants come from Mediterranean climes and have similar cultural needs, which is a blessing for us as it makes grouping these plants in the landscape easier. Since our climate mimics the hot, dry summers of the Mediterranean, many of the plants are well adapted here, except for our cool, wet winters. Locate these plants where the soil drains well to avoid waterlogged roots and sickly plants.

Some of my favorite trees and shrubs to use for gray to silvery color are: Abies concolor, Buddleia davidi, Caryopteris incana, Cedrus atlantica glauca, Chamecyparis pisifera Graymoss (squarrosa), Eleagnus angustifolia umbellate, Juniperus virginiana glauca, Lonicera korolkowi floribunda, Picea pungens glauca and Viburnum carlesi. I apologize for not including the common names of these plants, but this is your assignment for this week. There will be a test.

Low-growing perennials that have great value as foreground plants are: Achillea umbellate, Anthemis montana, Arabis alpina, aurinia saxatilis, Centaurea cineraria, Cerastium tomentosum, Dianthus sp., Eryngium maritinum, Nepeta mussini, Thymus sp., and Veronica incana.

Medium-sized perennials include Achillea tomentosa, Alyssum argenteum, Artemisia sp., Campanula sarmantica, Centaurea cineraria, Hosta fortunei, Lychnis coronaria, Salvia sp., Santolina chamaecyparissus, Senecio sp., and Stachys lanata.

Tall-growing perennials suitable for the back of the border or as accent plants include Eryngium giganteum, Perovskia atriplicifolia, Rudbeckia maxima, Ruta graveolens, Thalictrum glaucum, and Verbascum olympicum Miss Willmott.

What are we to do with these plants during the brighter months? Do we plant them as fall approaches, only to weed them out in early spring? Of course not. They are excellent year-round residents of the garden.

In the summer we use them in combinations with other plants, often to soften and diffuse bright colors. In other beds we may combine them with light-tinted flowers, soft lavenders, mauve, pale yellow, buff, and soft pinks. They are most striking when strewn lavishly throughout the bed, rather than planted singly or in scattered clumps.

No matter how you choose to utilize them, they always make your other plants more attractive, while shining on their own.

Stan Mapolski, aka The Rogue Gardener, can be heard from 9-11 a.m. Sunday mornings on KMED 1440 AM and seen in periodic gardening segments for KTVL Channel 10 News. Reach him at stanmapolski@yahoo.com.

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