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How To Colour Your Garden

Colour-driven landscapes are harder than they look

By Amy Saunders  | October 11, 2018 | Category

By Adrian Higgins, (c) 2018, The Washington Post


The most eye-catching part of a garden plant is its flower, and the most captivating element of a bloom is its colour. You might think then that designing a garden should be an exercise in painting with flowers. This idea once held a lot of sway, but colour-driven garden design is, by and large, a dead duck.

Gardeners today are more relaxed about their plantings and are driven less by colour schemes than the desire for naturalistic effects. We are still drawn to flowers and have our own colour preferences, but the need for elaborate, colour-coded borders has generally vanished.

There are ways to pinpoint plant colour -- the most famous is the Royal Horticultural Society Colour Chart, essentially paint charts with holes in them for matching chips directly with a flower -- but I have never seen a gardener in the United States use one.

This retreat from overt colour design doesn't mean that we should abandon our interest in colour theory. Every gardener needs to know how colour works.

To that end, we mark this week the Smithsonian's publication of "Werner's Nomenclature of Colours," a reproduction or facsimile of an 1821 manual that is slender physically but a giant in its significance. It was devised by a Scottish art teacher named Patrick Syme and based on a system of colour classification by a German mineralogist, Abraham Werner. The book standardized the colour descriptions of scientific specimens in a pivotal era of discovery. One of its users was Charles Darwin.

But colour systems are needed by artists as well, and by the end of the 19th century, colour science had made the leap from botany to horticulture, most famously with the work of the Arts and Crafts garden writer and designer Gertrude Jekyll. She started out as a painter but turned to gardening after her eyesight deteriorated.

While Claude Monet was capturing his garden on canvas, Jekyll was turning her unrealized paintings into gardens.

She put together planting plans for borders of hot colours and cool colours. Her favoured approach was to compose a plant border that started with cool colours, moved to hot ones and then receded to the cooler ones.

This coherent artistry had great appeal and was adopted on both sides of the Atlantic. One of Jekyll's admirers was Vita Sackville-West, whose renowned garden at Sissinghurst Castle, south of London, includes a white garden aped in private gardens around the world. I prefer Sissinghurst's Purple Border, which, as I recall, is a medley of reds, pinks and blues as well as purple, all set against a high brick wall.

The desire to group plants by colour is thrilling when done well, but it leads you into a maze -- you must master colour theory before moving on to high-level gardening.

First, the theory. If you've taken an art class, you know that the appearance of a colour is controlled by three components: hue, brightness (or value) and saturation.

A pastel colour -- seen in a pink Oriental poppy, perhaps -- has high value and high saturation, making it light and bright. The pale colour of a blushed peony has high value but low saturation. The rich colour of a crimson gallica rose has low value and high saturation. This is explained in a book by the late Sandra Austin, who was an instructor of landscape design at George Washington University. "Colour in Garden Design" was published in 1998 but still can be found online.

Austin hoped that if gardeners understood the technical attributes of colour, they could use it more effectively in the landscape.

But mastering colour theory is one thing; having the proficiency to create a season-long colour-coordinated garden is something else.

Even if you include foliage as part of the colour plan, as Austin suggests, you'd still need an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and how they grow in your garden. Sorry, but you can't Google that; such knowledge takes years to accumulate through trial and error.

Another factor working against colour gardens is our Mid-Atlantic climate, which is colder in winter than England and certainly a lot hotter in summer. This alters the plant repertoire. You can't just crib a planting scheme from an English book.

I can think of a few instances where colour-driven gardening still commends itself. The first is in garden areas of light shade, where you could put together plants in considered shades of green and white with a little blue thrown in. Foliage colour would be a major element. I might suggest various hostas and ferns, grasses and sedges, Satsuki azaleas, smooth hydrangeas, fothergillas, sasanqua camellias, the native fringe tree, foamflowers, wood asters, foxgloves, Japanese anemones, rue anemones, white varieties of wood anemone and Grecian windflowers, and lots of little white daffodils followed by Virginia bluebells.

The easiest, cheapest colour playground is the container, where you can pick long-flowering annuals and tropicals that conform to a given three-or-four-colour scheme (or a single colour).

Another simple way to play with colours is to mass-plant three or four tulip varieties in a considered colour scheme. The show lasts for only a couple of weeks, but it's a delightfully luxurious way to celebrate the arrival of spring.

How should you piece together a planting plan? It is far more satisfying to compose gardens in terms of textures, forms, heights and blocks of plants rather than colour. Such compositions still pack a flower punch, but they aren't reliant on a constant floral parade for effect. Besides, there are times when the colour wheel and rules about complementary and harmonious hues seem irrelevant. Colour combinations often take care of themselves, and there will be happy accidents. I am thinking of a tulip named Dordogne, which by rights should be a gaudy disaster, marrying a peachy orange ground with a flame of bubble-gum pink. It looks fabulous.


Gardening tip:

The best tool for cutting back ornamental grasses is a pair of sharp hedging shears. Cut the grasses two to four inches above ground level. Tall grasses such as miscanthus or panicum can be tied before cutting for ease of disposal.

Featured Image:

Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post