When I walk from the ferry into the city, there is a certain office space I pass that reminds me how potent color can be. The space has large, picture windows along its expanse, at ground level and on the pedestrian path. It gives fantastic visibility into the office…kind of like the zoo…and the opportunity to get a good look at the office interior. I sometimes wonder if the folks who work in this environment are secretly annoyed with everything at the end of the day. You see, at first glance, this space bears the usual hallmarks of ultra modern and minimalist coolness…however you quickly realize that something is terribly wrong. Nearly all the walls in this office are painted a strong, strong rose pink. The chairs, cubicles and signs are all in this same color. This is not the color of soft adobe walls reflecting the light of a setting sun in, say California or Mexico, where bougainvillea drapes over the edge. Ah no, this is more like Cover Girl lipstick number 17 “Deep Coral” circa 1975 – frosted. You know the shade I am talking about. It appears that this color is the company’s logo which is perfectly correct in a small, graphic representation meant to be eye catching, but a crime in a complete environment….the employees are living in the logo. It’s made worse by the fact that it is paired with stark white ceilings and fluorescent lighting. I would be very anxious in this environment. Had they picked a soft, granny apple green the feeling would be entirely different.
Color also has a profound impact on gardens and how they feel. It is personal and ultimately you need to heed your own sense of style and embrace what works for you. One of the comments I hear frequently about my work is that it is soothing. I consider this a great compliment as I generally try to achieve a sense of calm. I believe that gardens should restore people – - especially today where we are hit at from every side by frenetic stimuli and refuges are harder to find.
With that in mind, below are a few concepts I use to guide my compositions:
Look to the foliage – Foliage can offer a variety of color, and usually it is softer than flower color. White (such as Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’), silver (such as Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’), blue (such as Hosta ‘Halcyon’), bronze (such as Carex comans ‘Bronze’), chocolate (such as Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’), yellow (such as Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) and chartreuse (such as Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’) can be found in a wide variety of plants. I always look at the foliage first when considering a plant. Not only for color, but for performance in both form and texture. We know the flowers are going to be pretty…but once they are done, do you really want just a lump of dull green leaves?
A mixture of foliage plants, and just a few small flowers.
Treat color prima donnas as they expect – Be thoughtful about using ultra saturated warm colors (this means strong reds, oranges, yellows, hot pinks). Sometimes, I find this strength of color challenging to relate to the rest of the garden and then there are perfect spots for it. If you are unsure, it can work well in smaller flowers, or limited punches. You can get away with larger jolts of it in early spring when there is less competition, for instance in the case of Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’. But in the mid summer border, a shrub that is covered in masses of bright, crayola yellow flowers will be very dominant. White is also strong. Use it wisely.
Not for the faint of heart – orange can really liven things up. If everything were clamoring for this much attention, the garden would be jarring to the senses.
Cool the heat - If you do like to use hot colors, also include blues, purples, silvers and bronzes to balance.
Repeat repeat repeat – Nothing creates a sense of harmony and pulls your eye down a border better than repetition. This does not mean you have to use the same plant to achieve this, although there are merits to this. You can also repeat the same color in different plants or use similar forms.
Running the length of the border, a repetition of Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’, plum colored Acer palmatum (‘Fireglow’ and ‘Bloodgood’) and blue and chartreuse foliage. The plum of the trees is picked up in a Peony and Heuchera.
The ultimate in repetition – massing. Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ happily enjoys its wet feet. This plant is repeated in the upper gardens, and also in another swale at the back of the property for continuity between the gardens.
Look for acccent colors - Both flowers and foliage often have accent colors – undertones that you will notice if you look carefully. Sometimes this quite subtle, such as in the stem, petiole or the underside of the leaves. Use this color to your advantage by pulling it out with similar colors placed nearby. This is a subtle art, but when you pay careful attention to these secondary colors it can greatly enhance the harmony.
Heuchera ‘Silver Scrolls’ pulls the silvery mint color of the Sedum lineare ‘Variegatum’, which in turn has pink undertones in its fleshy stems. The bronze carex is echoed in the needles of the pine (top right corner).
The deep apricot edging in Phormium ‘Sundowner’ (after the snow, it could just be called ‘downer’) picks up the same undertones in the Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’ which in turn shares a silvery blue green shade with the Artemesia. Flowers peeking in on the Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’ are strong when in full color, but pair well with the Phormium accents and are tempered by the chocolate colored foliage.
The russet of the Rheum stems and leaf undersides are picked up in the dwarf chocolate Weigela ‘Midnight Wine’ and Phormium ‘Sundowner,’ while the bronze carex and blue euphorbia are reflected in color of the surrounding stone.
Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ paired with Heuchera x villosa ‘Brownies’. The leaf color of the Heuchera is echoed in the stems of the Osmanthus. In spring, the new growth on the Osmanthus is a pink-bronze, in perfect harmony with the Heuchera.
A pot with Pennisetum ‘Rubrum’, Geranium pratense ‘Hocus Pocus’, and Sedum sieboldii ‘October Daphne’. The deep plum and rose shades in the grass is reflected in the edges of the geranium and sedum. The blue of the sedum is picked up in the speckling on the pot.
Less saturated is soothing - I learned a neat trick at a lecture given by Nori Pope at the NW Flower and Garden Show. First – a word about Nori Pope. He and his wife Sandra are noted colorists and their approach to color produces insanely gorgeous results. Be sure to check out their book Color in the Garden: Planting with Color in the Contemporary Garden. The trick he taught was to squish the petals of flowers to see the “true” color…The purpose of this is to demonstrate that while value may vary, if the base hue is the same, the color pairing will be successful. This has absolutely nothing to do with the below picture, but is a handy trick.
Iris ensata ‘Henry’s White’ paired with Parahebe perfoliata and a fading Astrantia major ‘Hadspen Blood’ (introduced to the plant world by Nori) backed by Rhus typina ‘Tiger Eyes’ – a wonder in color with soft pink stems. Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’ peeking in the front. In the distance, a plum colored Acer palmatum. A soothing combination.
Limit strong contrast - While I think its very compelling to have two strong colors together, you can go overboard with this (I did at one point) and you may find too much of it disquieting.
Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’ lives up to its name, and the flower color is reflected in the translucent highlights of the Phormium ‘Platt’s Black’ which is really a deep plum color. Here, the strong yellow of the Lonicera nitida ‘Baggenson’s Gold’ is duking it out with the Persicaria, and there is a lot of tension and high contrast with the Phormium. An OK combination a few times, but too much is jarring. Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’ tries to keep it in check.
It’s just plummy – I find deep plum shades to be a fantastic back drop to many colors. It looks fabulous with peaches, salmons, pinks, blues, greens, violets, purples and even chartreuse. You can find a plum backdrop for most conditions. For full sun – consider Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ which has blue undertones and for part shade consider any of the plum shades of Acer palmatum which often have red undertones.
Color is your opportunity to imprint a signature style on your garden. Enjoy it!