Star Gardener: Garden Symphony in One Color

The beauty and flexibility of monochromatic plant combinations
Yellow gazania with wooly silver sage and dichondra Durell Godfrey

We gardeners take inspiration wherever we find it. Nature, other gardens, books, and magazines are the obvious places.

The beauty and flexibility of monochromatic plant combinations caught my fancy at this year’s container exhibition, On+Off the Ground, which is on view at LongHouse Reserve until July 20. Ideas from three entries in particular illustrate how a single color can be used to entirely different effect and can be adapted readily by home gardeners. In my imagination, they are garden symphonies in one color that deliver a powerful emotional response, either in containers or our flowerbeds. They play with color, texture, and form to create mood pictures that are calm and serene, austere and minimalist, or even funky and amusing.

Those who are attracted to muted impressionistic images can draw many lessons from “Shades of Gray‚” a plant-driven container by Madeleine Piro of Serene Scapes of Long Island, in Hampton Bays. She shows a deft hand using 7, not 50, shades of gray in a layered combination of groundcovers, mid-height, and tall plants.

The skirt plays with textures of three almost silver-white plants: the popular glossy, small-leaved, and cascading Dichondra Silver Falls; a moderately sized, lobed-leaved, and woolly dusty miller, Senecio New Look, and a wormwood, Artemisia Parfum d’Ethiopia‚ that was new to me and has perhaps the finest, narrowest, filigree foliage I’ve ever seen in a plant. (As an aside, it is said to be perennial, grows to 2 to 3 feet high, is deer and drought-resistant. What more can a gardener ask for?) Rounding out the skirt is a cascading clear white morning glory with tiny green leaves, Convolvulus sabatius Prime White.

At mid-level are the big, bold, jagged, and muted silver leaves of the cardoon, giving the sensation of holding up the two large and bulky plants that tower over the entire confection. The main focus is drawn to a bush of Spanish lavender with needle-like silver leaves and a bounty of lavender flowers. A Texas sage that has small, neat, silvery-white leaves serves as a sort of backdrop to the lavender, accentuating its foliage.

As more people are attempting white gardens, this vignette provides a handy aid to the aesthetics that make them work. It can work equally well in a shade garden, built on shades and textures of green. With enough imagination and plant knowledge any color, probably, could be used in a monochromatic space.

A very different interpretation of monochromatic plantings in silver is an ensemble of three low, bowl-shaped containers using only three plants. Created by Tom Janczur of Soil Inc. in East Hampton, the pop of color from clumps of bright yellow gazanias is an attention-grabber, while exaggerating the play of the flat glossy foliage of the dichondra against the huge woolly leaves of silver sage, Salvia argentea.

     In the garden, and using other color combinations, Adrian Bloom at Bressingham Gardens in England employs the same concept with perennials. When Amy Halsey and I studied there two years ago September, large sweeps of various shades of orange, gold, and red were punctuated by single clumps of cool blue agapanthus, strengthening the impact of the hot colors.

The third container would fit perfectly in a traditional cottage garden.  Created by the sisters Anna and Emilia DeMauro, it uses only two compact, long-flowering perennials in a single shade of soft bluish grey. The veronica Twilight is packed with spikes, while a pincushion flower, Scabiosa Butterfly Blue, has long wiry stems with large, round flower heads that dance like its namesake in the slightest breeze. 

They recently formed a design business, DeMauro+DeMauro Gardens. Anna, an artist and sculptor, sculpted the bronze leg in another exhibit in the LongHouse show, “Suspended in Thyme.” Keep an eye on their progress.