You'll find many things in Steve Silberstein's garden, but no fads — no fairy landscapes or "follies," no upside-down tomatoes, not even a green roof on the mailbox.
And unlike the "instant gardens" and backyard makeovers so popular today, Silberstein's garden has been put together intentionally — "bit by bit," as he describes it — over the last 23 years. It now covers all but one of the 4 1/2 acres he shares with his wife Melody in Willingboro.
"It's not all planted — yet," Silberstein comments without irony, though it's funny when he says that because it's one of the few times he sounds like the rest of us. We swear by the adage, "You can never have too many plants."
What you will find in this garden is a lot of unusual plants and light - a little from the sun rustling through the tree canopy, but most at ground level, from the many variegated plants Silbertsein's placed throughout the garden. Their green leaves are splashed, streaked, dotted or edged in white, silver, pink or yellow, or even a different shade of green. Other leaves are a different color entirely, such as purple, red, orange or yellow, which is what happens when some other pigment masks the traditional chlorophyll-packed green.
What a lively, lovely contrast to the woods' omnipresent green!
Consider the tropical caladium, known for its splashy leaves of green, white, cream, pink or red, and sometimes all of the above, or purple oxalis, with its butterfly-shaped leaves painted purple, pink and burgundy.
"Variegation really brightens up a garden," says Silberstein, a horticulturist for the State of New Jersey who inspects plant nurseries for insects and disease.
Actually, disease is another way plants develop variegation.
The most famous example of this was the tulip breaking virus that caused the striping of the now infamous — and extinct — Semper Augustus tulip. Speculators in Holland in the 1630s went bonkers over its red-and-white-streaked petals, causing what became known as "tulip mania." Like more modern "bubbles" in the U.S. — stock market, dot-com, housing — "tulip mania" came to an ignominious end.
More often, variegation is caused by a genetic mutation known as a chimera, which occurs during normal cell division in a plant, according to Sasha Eisenman, assistant professor of horticulture at Temple University Ambler.
"Depending on where the mutated cell occurs, you might have a small mutation that might not be visible or, if it's in the right place, it may go on to create a dramatic effect," he says, adding that for a long time, such mutations were considered detrimental because the white streaks reflect a lack of chlorophyll, the life-sustaining green pigment in plants, and because the disease could spread to other plants.
Today, the verdict is more nuanced.
For one thing, mutations can produce beautiful results that consumers love and that make money for breeders, struggling plant nurseries and garden centers. "Any new plant with yellow or white or lime green variegation is immediately a hit on the market," says Mark Bridgen, director of Cornell University's Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead, N.Y., who's bred several Alstroemerias (Inca lily) and a variegated Cleome, known as spider flower.
Eisenman also cites research suggesting that "some mutations in tropical plants actually mimic damage by insects," possibly as a vehicle for the plants' self-preservation.
"Insects preferentially select healthy leaves to infest, so by having a few mottled white spots on there that kind of look like the plant has already been infected, the insects are then not going to invade that leaf," Eisenman says. "The mutation continues to allow that plant to grow and reproduce.
“It's very easy for humans to put an anthropomorphic spin on things," he adds, "but over time, some believe this could be evolutionarily significant. That's the hypothesis, anyway."
For the short-term, variegated plants are just plain pretty and fun — even a speckled native pokeweed that Melody Silberstein discovered on the property.
Pokeweed usually gets the hook from gardeners, but this variety "isn't invasive like its green counterpart," Steve Silberstein says, pointing out that "while some variegated plants are quite vigorous, others are weak and temperamental from a lack of chlorophyll. Lots of times variegated plants don't even survive in nature."
Many are surviving just fine in the Silbersteins' garden, which is primarily tended by Steve.
They include: ‘Little Honey,' an oakleaf hydrangea with bright gold leaves; an elderberry whose lacy leaves are dark green with broad yellow margins; Tradescantia ‘Blushing Bride,' whose foliage starts pink and fades to white, then green; red-leaf Japanese maples; ‘Hearts of Gold' redbud; an assortment of palms, bamboos, bananas, and camellias that are not just variegated, but hardy enough to survive south Jersey winters; and much, much more.
How can a gardener manage all this without going broke? "Actually, I'm on a budget," insists Silberstein, who propagates from existing plants when he can and when he can't, he buys plants in small containers because they're cheaper. He's in it for the long haul, after all.
Though he claims his garden is "a part-time endeavor," Silberstein is out there almost every day after work — at night, on weekends, even during the cold months and sometimes in the dark with a flashlight. "I really enjoy it," he says.
He prunes, deadheads, weeds, moves things around, notes what's thriving and what's not. He does not own a shredder, preferring to do everything by hand, and he designed his own underground irrigation system.
For compost, he uses shredded leaves from the yard, as well as 50-75 bags collected curbside from neighbors and one (free) truckload per year from the local public works department.
Silberstein also collects pine needles to mulch the walkways, which is a wonderful choice. Padding through this garden is like a trip to the fridge in your slippers, soft and pleasant underfoot — and on the eyes, which drink in the greens and their many variations while marveling at the scarcity of weeds. (Silberstein credits years of shredded leaves for that.)
That his livelihood and hobby are one and the same, and so consuming, likely was foreshadowed from the age of 8 or 9 on.
An only child who spent his early years in New York before his parents moved to Philadelphia, Silberstein says his father, a design engineer who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, encouraged his son's interest in plants, even planning family vacations around the botanical gardens he thought the boy might enjoy visiting.
"Usually, people are raised with a garden or grandparents who taught them, but no one in my family had the interest but me," says Silberstein, who earned a bachelor's degree in ornamental horticulture from Delaware Valley College in Doylestown and a master's in horticulture from the University of Arkansas.
Speaking as an ornamental expert, Silberstein suggests using variegated plants as accents in a garden. "Don't plant a bunch of them together. You lose the brightness," he says, adding that "they're good for setting off reds and pinks."
It all sounds — and is — lovely. But not everyone is a fan.
Kim Brown puts her husband James in that category. The pair owns New Moon Nursery in Bridgeton, which supplies native plants — including a couple of variegated versions of Jacob's ladder (Polemonium reptans) — to landscape contractors, municipalities and others.
"I guess you'd say he's a purist," Kim says of James. "He doesn't like variegated foliage. He thinks it makes the plant look sick, which is funny because disease is one of the causes of variegation."
Which is all OK with Silberstein. "That's the beauty of gardening. There's no right or wrong," he says. "You do what brings you satisfaction in your own garden."