Theme Gardens Part 1: Silver and Blue

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Blue includes purple (most “blue” flowers are purple), here hydrangea relative, perennial Chinese deinanthe, D. caerulea.

I am not a trained landscape designer.  Although I did take two landscape design courses at the Temple University Ambler  School of Horticulture, it didn’t stick.  I still don’t plan my gardens ahead of time but instead operate by gut instinct.  I can hear true garden designers like Allan at allanbecker.gardenguru and Donna at Garden Walk Garden Talk sighing all the way from Montreal and Niagara Falls, respectively.  It helps that I really know plants–their heights, habits, textures, blooms, cultural requirements, etc.–but I still do a lot of shifting around and replacing in my gardens that could probably be avoided by a little advance planning.

‘Jack Frost’ brunnera, B. macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, is a star performer in my silver and blue garden for its true blue flowers and silvery blue leaves.

One technique that has really helped improve my garden’s design (and avoid all the rearranging) is theme gardens.  I know what you are thinking, here’s where she drags out photos of her “white garden” ala Vita Sackville-West.   Well, I don’t have a strictly white garden, but I do have color theme gardens.  My sunniest area is a chartreuse, orange, and purple garden, my main perennial bed focuses on peach, pink, gold, and purple, near the woodland there is a gold and yellow garden, around the deck is a moon garden  (plants that are ornamental at night, mostly white), and across from the deck is my silver and blue garden, which I want to share with you today.

Silvery fragrant flowers of native ‘Brandywine’ foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia ‘Brandywine’, an excellent groundcover whose shiny green leaves turn red in the fall.

Why limit myself that way?  Because having a theme helps me decide what plants belong in a particular garden and what plants don’t.  It provides a unifying factor.  I find it much easier to achieve a cohesive whole if I know why each plant is there, and color themes force me to consider each addition carefully.  And it must work because those are the gardens I get the most compliments on from customers and garden tours.

A massive native Kentucky coffeetree is the focal point of the garden, which is surrounded by white pine needle paths.  Because the tree is so big, I had to climb up on the roof to get shots of the bed.  This photo shows you all the gardens in the area.

My silver and blue garden surrounds a native Kentucky coffeetree, Gymnocladus dioicus, that may be over 100 years old.  It is approaching 100 feet tall and is 8 feet in circumference.  Luckily it does not have extensive surface roots.  The bed is an oval 12 feet wide and 20 feet long.  It started with leftover plants from one of my fall nursery sales, which happened to be silver and blue.  As part of my quest to eliminate all the grass on my back hill, I planted the leftover plants at the base of the Kentucky coffeetree, and my silver and blue garden was born.  I have been adding to it for about five years, and now it is quite mature.

This photo shows the overall design of the bed.  Despite its simple look, there are actually over 25 plant varieties.

One important caveat before I get to the plants, I rarely plant less than five of any one perennial (even with shrubs, I normally plant three).  My customers are always asking me how to have a garden like mine.  Near the top of the list, somewhere after compost, is quantity.  You need a lot of the same plant to make it show up in your garden.  One does not work, three is barely sufficient, five achieves critical mass, and seven is optimal (obviously this depends somewhat on the size of the plant, the bed, and your garden as a whole).

Northern end of the bed dominated by large patches of ‘Dawson’s White’ and ‘Jack Frost’ brunnera and ghost fern.

Southern end of the bed with Hosta ‘Ginko Craig’ and ‘El Nino’, variegated Japanese kerria, K. japonica ‘Variegata’, and white-flowered bigroot hardy geranium, G. macrorrhizum ‘Album’.

The theme of the bed is silver (also incorporating white) and blue (also including lighter shades of purple).  I find that most flowers labeled blue really are a shade of purple.  The colors are provided by the flowers and, probably more importantly, the foliage.  Again, blue leaves are in reality bluish green.  I included some plants that don’t fit the theme for contrast.  Here are some closeups of the bed and some more photos of the individual plants:

Click any photo to enlarge.  A close up of the north end revealing some of the lesser players.  Between the two types of brunnera, Hosta ‘Blueberry Cobbler’ with very blue leaves and gorgeous blueberry purple stems and native sedge ‘Bunny Blue’, Carex laxiculmus ‘Bunny Blue’.  Around the ‘Dawson’s White’, a lungwort seedling, Pulmonaria sp., with silver spots and deep blue flowers, and double white-flowered hybrid hellebore ‘Double Integrity’, H. x hybridus ‘Double Integrity’.

Looking around the back side of the bed reveals Chinese deinanthe (flower pictured in first photo) behind the kerria; native variegated northern sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist’ to the left;  blue-leafed and white-flowered dwarf Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum falcatum ‘Pumilum’ in front;and blue-leafed native white wild bleeding-heart, Dicentra eximia ‘Aurora’, in the foreground.

White and silver variegated foliage really shows up in a shade garden: clockwise from upper left, ‘Dawson’s White’ brunnera, ‘El Nino’ hosta (very blue), ‘River Mist’ northern sea oats, and ‘Ginko Craig’ hosta.

‘Lilafee’ barrenwort, Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’, provides gorgeous purple flowers in April (the yellow corydalis is an interloper).

Providing blue tones, clockwise from upper left: ‘Bunny Blue’ sedge, Japanese kerria ‘Variegata’, ‘Bertram Anderson’ lungwort with blue flowers and silver leaves, and dwarf Solomon’s seal ‘Pumilum’.

The blue flowers of brunnera are beautiful for a long time in late spring.

Relief from too much variegation is provided by clockwise from upper left: evergreen tassel fern, Polystichum polyblepharum, evergreen hybrid hellebore, H. x hybridus, Asian jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema consanguineum, and native Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, which climbs the Kentucky coffeetree.

The color scheme is carried across the pine needle path to the garden surrounding the deck.

In placing the plants in the bed, consideration was given to cultural conditions (soil type, i.e. dry, and light availability), height, bloom time, texture, and habit, but the primary factor was silver and blue color.  The result is a garden with almost year round interest and plants that work together to make the whole more lovely than the sum of its parts.


Notes: Click on any photo to enlarge.  Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.  If you want to return to my website’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.), just click here.

Nursery Happenings: The nursery is closed until it cools off in the fall around the middle of September.  If you are on my customer email list, look for an email.  If not, sign up by sending an email to with your name and phone number.

71 Responses to “Theme Gardens Part 1: Silver and Blue”

  1. NWPhilly Eric Says:

    What a terrific blog post, Carolyn! I really think that you are demonstrating – with superior photos and details about the plant selections – that creating garden beds that restrict the palette of both foliage and blooms makes for really rich and “pulled-together” garden design. For those of us who fall in love with a new plant before identifying a place in our garden to grow it, this creates a template for success.
    I’m surprised I didn’t see Lamium “White Nancy” somewhere in those beds, which I’m sure you have somewhere in your gartdens. Some other plants which might certainly enhjance the collection of blue & silver plants you’ve named:

    Carex siderosticha ‘variegata’, a broad-leafed sedge which hugs the ground more like a groundcover than a grassy texture.

    Hosta ‘Deep Blue Sea’ which is a medium sized blue hosta with wonderful corrugated and crinkled round leaves. That extreme amount of leaf texture creates “silvery” highlights on the blue green leaves.

    Caryopteris “Snow Fairy’ which does surprisingly well in the shade in my community garden [Ned Wolf Park, in Philadelphia’s Nt. Airy neighborhood]. It’s creamy white and green foliage which smells like green pepper is the reason to grow it….not the small incidental purple flowers that will follow next month & into September.

    • Eric, I am glad you liked the post and thanks for the suggestions. I am intrigued by the caryopteris for shade. I have not had luck with any lamium except ‘Shell Pink’ and ‘Purple Dragon’ so those are the only cultivars I grow. Carolyn

  2. A beautiful post Carolyn! I’m finally learning after many years to mass plant. I get so carried away with different varieties and my garden is fairly small so I’ve had plants tucked in here and there. Those that reseed or spread and bloom abundantly are those that make me really happy at bloom time. So over the last few years, I’ve planted more of the same. But come fall, it’s still hard to resist the occasional loner!

  3. Beautiful! It all looks so lush and healthy. I also like your pine needle path. I agree large groups of the same plant look better. But nowadays I usually buy only one plant. If that plant survives in my garden, I buy more. That is better for my wallet.

  4. I love your mass planting Carolyn, you know even with my excuses that is what I would really like to do. I planted Jack Frost’ brunnera in our garden in early May, I am surprised that the leaves have remained so fresh and unaffected by slugs and other pests, hope it flowers next year.

  5. Your reasoning is always so good. I am like you-just two courses in landscape design and am mostly self taught. But I tell you many landscape designers don’t have as much knowledge about plants as they maybe should. You and I being well versed with plant habits can make up for that additional training don’t you think?

    Theme gardens or color gardens are great . Some of my friends design this way and their gardens always look good. I have a problem with plant collecting though so none of my gardens have themes. If a plant will fit, it will grow there, it complements its neighbors then in it goes~! Sigh. My design problems then happen when the plant outgrows its small spot and has to be moved or spread around. My least favorite thing to do in the garden. I do like your critical mass ideas. Makes it easy for sure. Now if I could just get an acre or two more to plant more I’d be set!

    Whew! Hot one out there today so I hope you are staying cool. Love your gardens. They all complement one another perfectly.

    • Tina, I do do a lot of moving plants around (my husband is such a good sport when its trees and shrubs!). Lots of plants die too because I am constantly experimenting with locations and conditions. I really don’t mind that because it really is the process that I enjoy most. Walking around the gardens is satisfying too, but secondary. Carolyn

  6. Judith Spruance Says:

    Love your blue and white garden and I think you have a deer fence, deer hounds or a little pet wolf! How do all these wonderful plants survive?

  7. Perhaps not designed in theory, but delightfully designed with your heart. You don’t need to Plan it Out, when you know your plants. Mine go in, then have to be sorted out, because I didn’t know …

    I was wondering if you are on Google+ (Google Plus) ?

  8. I’m trying to get my head around the size, 20 x 12 for the bed and 8 around the tree, photos are very deceptive as your over view photo makes it appear smaller, lovely selection of plants as always Carolyn, I’ve often read to plant several of the same plant but if I bought several of one plant I would have very little variety (I don’t have much anyway) I am learning to divide more, so I have to wait for several plants the same, thanks, Frances

  9. Carolyn – I’m interested in your comment about planting in numbers. I can see the effect in your photos. I made the mistake of planting single daffodils and tulips around the garden instead of in groups.

    • Bag, Every gardener goes through the same progression. I have my single tulips and daffodils too. Another common learning experience is planting them in the front of the bed so their dying foliage is not covered by other plants emerging. I just moved some of those. Carolyn

  10. Beautiful garden and I love the themes. I am a plucker. I pluck them down and pluck them out when I don’t like it. Learning more about planning and I love the idea of quantity. I have a bed that needs redoing under the main trees out back. I will start looking at what I have and how to add more in a theme (oh boy) with several of each kind of plant…should be fun!!

  11. It is funny you mentioned me this way because I just left a comment at Two Gardens saying experience and enthusiasm is what make a good garden, not necessarily following steadfast rules. Knowledge is also an important ingredient, but that is inherent in experience. Like knowing growing conditions and height/spreads, etc. comes with experience, not looking at plant tags or books because there is so many variables regionally and climatically to consider. Color is a good unifier and does make a garden work well for the viewer, since it is all tied up so neatly. I think you are a designer too because you have instinct. And that is a quality not always learned.

  12. I love that you plant by colors. I do that a lot, too, though I have one bed that I have not done that and I am not as satisfied with it. Your silver and blue bed looks so serene and magical. With your experience, you don’t need to plan everything out – you can just put plants in, as you know what will work and what won’t.

    • Holley, There is a lot of shifting around that I think a full fledged landscape designer like Donna at GWGT wouldn’t need to do. I also don’t plant the whole bed at once but start small and add to it as I find plants that work. Carolyn

  13. Beautiful – and so cool to look at on a hot summer day!

  14. Carolyn, This is really interesting. I am, as you know, a planner — but I still find I have to do quite a bit of moving around and revision as things bloom. What I realized in reading this, though, is that my color-themed gardens (blue and yellow border and the deck border) have needed much less revision than have other flower beds that don’t have that color theme to impose discipline. I will keep this lesson in mind in planning future garden areas. Thanks for the insight.

  15. You are right. Your silver and blue theme is amazingly lovely. Your photos tells it all.

  16. This garden is wonderful! Thanks for climbing on the roof just so we could get a full view of it; you went beyond the call of duty! You have convinced me I need to plant MORE. I already knew this, but hearing and seeing it from a professional is a good kick to my garden pants.

  17. You plant knowledge has allowed you to create some stunning combinations, and is invaluable Carolyn. I rather enjoy moving plants around until I am happy, but I do recognise that it is only really necessary to the extent that it is because I am no garden designer and my understanding of plants is relatively sparse still. I find that until I have direct experience of growing something myself I don’t really understand how to use it will. Mind you, that’s the adventure, and I love it! And thank you, you have forced me to reconsider my “I don’t like variegated leaves” stance.

    • Janet, Believe it or not, I really am not a huge fan of variegated leaves. They just happen to really work in this garden, but generally they have to be “applied” sparingly. I completely agree with everything you said and already commented that I like the process in an earlier reply. You are so right–I have to grow the plant myself before I truly know how to use it. Carolyn

  18. Louise Thompson Says:

    Carolyn, in the last photo, what is that very upright hosta in the foreground? I’ve seen some of them in my neighborhood and I have just the place for it, if I can find out its name and then find the hosta someplace.
    In my bed that is sort of blue and white, I throw in a couple of pale greens for contrast, for instance hosta ‘Kabitan’. Great little hosta, although slugs love it too much.
    Thanks – Louise

  19. We have spoken before about how importsnt it is to plant more than one example of any plant in the garden. As you so correctly say this is probably the most important factor in a garden having an overall ‘feel’. Even in small gardens it is vital that it doesn’t become just spoty! I think this is why, sometimes, people who grow their plants from seed are successful because they have lots of the same plant to use and don’t want to waste! Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Have a great rest from the nursery being open. Christina

    • Christina, You make an important point: if you grow plants from seed you can have a lot for a very reasonable price. Also hostas are very easy to divide, and from one you can produce five the next year–I often do that. Self-sowing plants are another source of free plants, ‘Jack Frost’ brunnera self-sows, and I move the babies around. Finally, plant sales are a good source. I have gotten a lot of plants from the Delaware Valley rock Garden Society sale. Carolyn

  20. Some beautiful examples of temperate shade gardening at its best. I envy you the space you have – and the lack of slug and snail damage, especially on the hostas. I can’t grow them in the ground, only in vaseline protected pots.

  21. Ah the gardens look so peaceful and inviting.

  22. I think gardens are beautiful on their own merits. I have had a few landscaping classes as well, but mostly I do my own thing. I do like the idea of having ‘a white garden’ or ‘a blue garden’ and such. I have not tried it, however, but looking at your photos inspires me to give it a go.

    • SB, Every plant is beautiful individually, and plants don’t necessarily have to be combined into a cohesive whole. I really believe that gardeners should do what looks right to them, even if designers would not approve. However, I wanted to provide some guidance to gardeners who are not satisfied with their gardens. Carolyn

  23. The cream-green Brunnera are the stars of your garden.

  24. Everything looks so peaceful! My Dawsons White brunnera died in our drought last summer, despite my efforts to keep it alive. I’m filling its spot with heuchera and hellebores this fall. The hellebores are seedlings from a friend so I’m not sure what color they’ll be. It will be a happy surprise to find out. 🙂

  25. I feel cool just looking at your photos, I also admire the contrasting textures as well as the colours of the foliage. There are times when flowers are not necessary and this is one of them, absolutely beautiful.

  26. Even though your design classes did not stick, it is not apparent in your photos. I knew when I was putting in my own garden in it would be a repository of plants I fell in love with at the moment. So I made sure there were lots of rigid lines so that the jumble of plants would not look as jumbly.

    • Thanks, Les. I will have to think about rigid lines and their effect. I tend to let everything get overgrown and blend together. My designer friend said it looked like a beautiful woman with messy hair. After that, I had my son edge all my beds!!! Carolyn

  27. Carolyn – terrific post as always. As a beginner perennial gardener, I’ve been looking around at my gardens – in their first summer here – and wondering what my next steps should be…what plants should be added, etc. I am really beginning to see the merit of mass plantings, even in a small-sized garden. As a newcomer, I’ve tended to get one each of several plants I like in order to get the “most” for my money and accommodate as many of the plants that I love as I can.

    This post had me going out and looking at my garden areas with new eyes and considering not how many different plants could work there, but which plants work well now /do I like there / would I want more of.

    I could see a picture taking shape in my mind, a direction to move in, and that is really exciting. Sometimes I look at a photo and I don’t realize that it’s not one plant I’m looking at, but a grouping of several. Thank you for pointing this out to me – the impact a grouping delivers is what I’d like to see in my own garden.

    The silver-blue color theme you’ve chosen there is lovely and I believe choosing a color theme is another thing that will help me “start somewhere” – the options can be overwhelming sometimes.

    I feel ready to start forming a plan for the fall and for next year – thanks, Carolyn!

    • Aimee, It is very gratifying that you found the post so helpful. I am constantly looking at my gardens to see what is doing well so I can add more. Also Mother Nature will often tell you what works by planting self sowing plant plaints your gardens. Instead of ripping them out right away, I try them out for a while to see if I like the effect. Carolyn

  28. nice composition! Silver or gray is a favorite of mine in the sun garden also, they have the ability to ‘soften’ warm or hot colors.

  29. What beautiful views of your garden. Jack Frost makes such a powerful statement in a shade garden. The creative possibilities with it and variegated hostas blow the mind.

  30. Carolyn, great advice about planting in groups. This is something I have to chastise myself for over and over. Inevitably I buy one plant to try it out. When I decide I like it I can’t find more of the same variety to purchase and the garden ends up looking a bit loosey goosey. I tried very hard this year to buy a minimum of three plants when I went shopping.

    • Marguerite, That really is the problem. Unless, you are buying a fairly ordinary plant, you won’t find the same variety again when you decide you really .like it next year. It is a dilemma. It is better to research the conditions and commit to at least three if it’s suitable for your site. Carolyn

  31. I have just stumbled on your blog and I am really enjoying it. I have a large shade bed also so this is very inspiring. I was going through your catalogue and love your selection of hellebores, galanthus, and even cyclamen. Will you be doing any mail order in the fall? I am VERY interested in your fall blooming galanthus and hellebore niger

  32. Dear Carolyn, Love the silver and blue theme. I did a silvery white container area this year, and liked the effect. I am looking forward to your part 2. P. x

  33. Thanks for clarifying this Carolyn. I will have to look out for the sale of your galanthus in late winter. I am always trying to add more to the collection. Seeing as my other half is a graduate of Villanova, maybe I can convince him to do a road trip. I will entice him with Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches…

  34. I think talent accounts for a lot in a successful garden design, and you are clearly a very talented designer. I love your silver and blue garden, and your choice of plants is excellent.

  35. NWPhilly Eric Says:

    So many responses here about planting in quantities…..besides the obvious “Ahhhh!!!” factor of enjoying a wide area of the same handsomely grown foliage or the sweep of blooms, devoting larger areas to less species and cultivars also helps reduce maintenance. You generally need not prune and shape one plant to make visual space for it’s neighbors when they’re identical. Time for Dead-heading is reduced without tons of different varieties to assess. And taking cuttings of foliage or flowers for a bouquet doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice to the garden bed when there’s lots more where it came from. And it’s easier to direct the eye with a whole chorus of plantings than with collection of divas.

  36. What a lovely garden. The blue of the brunnera is brilliant!

  37. Mel Grace Says:

    Thanks for careful naming of plants.

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