The trouble with dusty miller is finding something not to like about it.
It’s an old favorite for a reason, and you’ll see why below. Here’s what’s ahead in this article:
How to Grow Dusty Miller
Let’s dig in!
A Classic Garden Annual
About fifty percent of my favorite plants are the ones that I grew and grew up with as a child. Marigolds, pansies, and black-eyed susans are near the top, but good ol’ dusty miller takes the cake as my favorite.
I mean, look at that name – Dusty Miller? It’s impossible not to picture a wizened old man with a silvery beard and a squat build chuckling away in the garden. It’s a work of genius and art all by itself!
It doesn’t hurt that it was my uncle’s favorite too. He passed away when I was young, and my aunt planted flowers at his grave every year. When she was too old to do it, I took on the responsibility.
Imagine the incredible, sappy-happy joy that I felt when I discovered that the dusty miller I planted in the spring survived a hot and humid summer, interrupted by a cold and bitter winter, to push out new growth the following spring like it was nothing.
This might be common for those in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10, where it is often grown as an herbaceous perennial. But in my neck of the woods, it’s practically taken for granted that this plant is an ornamental annual!
Since then, I often see dusty miller everywhere I go. But it’s usually relegated to the gardens of the older generations. And that’s a shame. It’s a beautiful foliage plant that is on the verge of a major resurgence in popularity, so you better keep on reading to learn everything you need to know about placing dusty miller in your garden.
Where Does Dusty Miller Shine?
As long as you plant dusty miller in environs where it will be happy, you’ll be happy with its display.
Formerly known botanically as Senecio cineraria, it has more recently been recategorized in the Jacobaea genus, part of the Asteraceae family. Native to areas of the Mediterranean, it’s also known as silver ragwort, and is not to be confused with other plants that go by the common name “dusty miller,” including Centaurea cineraria and Lychnis coronaria.
Like I described above, it is typically perennial in zones 8 to 10, but I’ve had luck in zone 5 keeping ol’ J. maritima alive through the winter.
J. maritima thrives in sunny locations that have well-draining soil. It doesn’t require much water and is a great option for xeriscaping; in fact, too much water will spur a bout of root rot. And you don’t want that!
Luckily, J. maritima can thrive at most soil pH levels, and it can even tolerate some partial shade. If you grow yours in a less-than-sunny location, you will find that its iconic silvery sheen dissipates and is replaced by a gray-green color instead.
I’ve had great luck placing dusty miller in beds of wildflowers that thrive in similarly hot and dry conditions. The plant does very well in containers, and is one of my go-to options for adding some contrast with otherwise bright colors. It pairs especially well with ornamental grasses.
Even if it’s primarily a matter of personal taste, dusty miller pairs very well with white flowers too (especially Proven Winners’ ‘Diamond Dust’ euphorbia variety) by softening the complementary white shades. I admit that I try to squeeze dusty miller into every garden and container I can, but there’s a reason for that!
It Works Almost Anywhere
The silver sheen is subtle and not distracting, hardly an eye-catching piece of foliage, but that’s kind of the point. When you are designing your containerized plants, adding a more subtle plant to the mix works wonders.
There is no shortage of plants you’ll encounter that are flashy and screaming for attention, and all the while humble dusty miller is happy to provide some contrast and textural variation.
The beaches of Cape Cod are strewn with J. maritima, and it presents the perfect conditions for the plant – hot and sunny, mostly dry, with well-drained soil. If you’ve got sandy soil where nothing grows, J. maritima is for you!
Just yesterday, I was walking the dog and noticed a very interesting container design. It incorporated cactus, ferns, and dusty miller all in one. I loved this unique grouping right away, partially because it demonstrates the variability of J. maritima.
Keep in mind that in order to make this mix work, hidden inner containers were likely used to accommodate the greater hydration needs of the ferns than that of the desert plants.
Pests and Problems
Will you struggle to battle these if you add this plant to your outdoor space? Hardly!
Dusty miller is resistant to almost every bug, disease, and trouble you’ll find in the garden. This is at least in part because it thrives in hot and dry conditions where most troublemakers don’t reach.
It can suffer from rust infections, but it makes up for for this possibility by being largely deer resistant. The biggest issue you can encounter is typically root rot, but by planting J. maritima in the right location, this won’t be an issue.
If you grow this plant in shadier conditions, it tends to become leggy and stretched out, in an attempt to reach for more sunlight. I’m growing a few plants in a part-shade container in my backyard, and they are a little stretched and funny looking… but with the right plant pairings, that leggy growth is more of a positive than a detriment.
Although dusty miller produces a lovely yellow flower, most gardeners tend to find it insignificant and less than worthwhile. You can cut the flower stalks down when they form, or you can let the plant do what it wants to do and enjoy a bit of yellow playing off those silvery hues!
Besides Planting Plugs, How Can I Grow Silver Ragwort?
Many times, you’ll find silver ragwort sold in 6-packs at the garden center. This is my preferred method for growing it. I love to start plants from seed, but J. maritima is one of the few where I prefer instant gratification.
If you’re inclined to try starting seeds, you should start them indoors about six weeks before the last frost date, or you can sow them directly to your garden about two weeks before the last freeze date. They’ll stand up to a bit of overcrowding, so you don’t need to thin them out too diligently.
Are you a fan of cuttings? Even if you’re not, I encourage you to give it a shot!
Your silver ragwort plants are great for starting cuttings. Find a piece that has become a bit woody and snip it from the parent plant.
Start cuttings in good-quality potting mix, and keep them watered. A rooting hormone can speed up the process and produce more reliable results.
Garden Safe TakeRoot Rooting Hormone, available on Amazon
Remember to snip those flowers if they have grown from your cuttings, to stimulate root and leaf development. This isn’t critical when the plants are already established in the garden, but it can be an important factor when considering J. maritima’s energy expenditure if you are attempting to start new plants from cuttings with strong roots.
Which Types of Silver Ragwort are Worth Trying? (And Where to Buy Them)
Well, if you ask me, they all are! Your best bet is to find plants at your local nursery or garden center. Growing from seed, as I mentioned above, can produce unexpected results since this species not true to seed, so growing from starts that already have the qualities that you’re looking for is the surest path to victory.
‘Silverdust’ Seeds, available from True Leaf Market
But, if you’re willing to give it a shot and want to start from seed, I recommend the ‘Silverdust’ cultivar. Some types of silver ragwort are marketed for their stronger or more intense foliage, but ‘Silverdust’ is ideal for a strong grower that doesn’t sing with too loud of a voice in the garden.
‘Silverdust’ is also available on Amazon as a live plant that you might like to try.
‘Cirrus’ Seeds, available from True Leaf Market
On the other hand, the ‘Cirrus’ cultivar is intentionally grown for a stronger, bolder silver foliage. This is quite attractive to add to a garden with other silver hues (some thyme varieties and eucalyptus come to mind), and offers a more pronounced appearance.
Goodbye, Mister Miller
The best way to see if J. maritima works in your garden is to add it in there! I promise that if you have the right conditions for it to thrive, you’ll be delighted that you introduced it to the menagerie you have growing already.
Thanks so much for reading, and happy gardening! Please drop us a comment below, and don’t hesitate to let us know if you have any questions.
Photos by Matt Suwak © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Garden Safe, Orsana, and True Leaf Market. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.
About Matt Suwak
Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in gardening, bird watching, and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works under the sun as a landscaper and gardener, and by moonlight as a writer. An incessant questioning of “Why?” affords him countless opportunities to ponder the (in)significance of the great and the small. He considers folksy adages priceless treasures and is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.