Color in the Garden

Originally published on

Color in the Garden
Ilga Jansons

Earlier this summer, I was called to jury duty. Given our notorious rush hour traffic into Seattle, I happily used the bus tokens that were provided to me for the forty minute ride to the court house. The higher perspective of the tall bus gave me a great opportunity to look at the suburban and city gardens on a route I don’t usually take. Viewing gardens from a vehicle gives little time to examine the tiny details of a garden; what stands out are the colors of the plants and flowers.

I was struck by the mark of the individual gardener on the color combinations I saw. One extremely effective planting was a driveway planted on either side in sweeping swaths of lavender and an especially vibrant California poppy (Eschscholtzia). Against the golden stucco of the building it was quite stunning. Another garden had a collection of Exbury azaleas effectively planted with blue camassias. Not something I would do, but in the context of the site, it worked extremely well.   

Color involves very personal choices in our everyday life, as well as in the garden.  All the color wheels in the world will not change your preferences, though they might open you to some new or different experiments. By driving through your community, visiting gardens and parks, or simply carrying around pots in your favorite nursery, you can start visualizing color combinations for your beds and containers. 

The color theory principles of complementary and contrasting colors are useful in designing your garden. In simple terms, you can either harmonize similar colors or juxtapose opposite ones. On a color wheel, this means using colors that are adjacent or close to each other on the wheel or using colors that are on opposite sides of the wheel. Complementary colors generally have a more soothing effect, while contrasting colors add drama and excitement. 

One of my favorite effects in the garden is the use of the same or similar colors in varied sizes or textures, that is, complementary color combinations. For example, the ‘German blue’ rose ‘Veilchenblau’ and Clematis ‘Violet Star Gazer’ have almost identical colors but very different flower forms. If a bit more variety is to your taste, the rich purple tones of  Clematis ‘Etoile Violette’ can set off the rose as a complementary foil.

The north edge of my rock garden boasts a stand of Pentsemon fructicosus ‘Purple Haze’ and Penstemon ‘Burgundy’ above the broad leaves of Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding.’ This combination stands in sharp contrast to the orange daisy-like flowers of Buphthalmum salicifolium ‘Alpen Gold’ blooming higher on the rock crest. 

You can also use vegetative color to augment hardscape effects. For example, I use Pulmonaria rubra ‘Redstart’ along a serpentine rose-granite walkway in the spring. The large summer leaves make a backdrop to pink annual begonias in the summer months. The plants create a complementary echo of the pink stone and tie the path into the setting. 

I have a personal preference for so-called black (generally dark-purple) flowers with pale blue. I first discovered this combination in the garden when a chance seedling of the black (really a deep red) Papaver somnifera happened to show up in a bed of Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’. Now, I buy poppy seeds sorted by color (available through Thompson and Morgan) and plant them where they first arrived by happy accident. I have added black hollyhock (Alcea rosea ‘Nigra,), a strange but stunning flower called Phyteuma nigrum and the Pacific hybrid Delphinium  ‘Blue Jay’ and look forward with great anticipation to the blooming of this bed each year. 

On a visit to Rodmarten Manor in England a few years ago, I was struck with the simplicity and effectiveness of Love-in-the-Mist (Nigella damascena) in pale blue with the foaming chartreuse flowers of Alchemilla mollis. I have since planted these partners on a path—which fortunately self-seeds perpetually. Another similar color effect is the Alchemilla in a striking (and energetic) partnership with Campanula garganica, or any of the other free flowering campanulas. 

Pots are a great way to experiment with color. You can try out new combinations without long term impact on your beds. If you don’t like it, no harm done. This year we planted bright red fiberglass pots with brilliant red ‘Sunblaze’ roses and verbena ‘Homestead Purple.’ Placed adjacent to a sunny bench, they make an eye-popping display. It’s fun for a short-term, but I wouldn’t want a permanent bed of it.  

Foliage can produce exciting color combinations as well. In a large well-worn and slightly peeling burgundy Mexican pot, I keep Phormium cookianum ‘Flamingo’ planted with Pelargonium ‘Turkish Delight.’ Since neither is hardy, they go into the garage/greenhouse for the winter. Other similar pots hold Phormium tenax ‘Dazzler’ and other ornamental leaf Pelargoniums such as ‘Blazonry’ and ‘Contrast.’ I plant these geraniums purely for foliage and thwart the flowers by pinching them out.                   

Another example is a bed of Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantia ‘Helen von Stein’) which I grow along the driveway. I find their rangy heads of flowers distract from the neat ground cover I want. I remove them while still in bud. Several hostas in an Asian setting in the pond garden are distracting from the serenity of the vista, so it’s off with their heads too. Only the fragrant ones get a reprieve.  

Color in the garden isn’t just the right plants, it’s also the right placement. For example, the rays of the sun can enhance a color effect. Black hellebores which virtually disappear in a wooded setting, are lustrous burgundy wine red when back-lit by the early spring sun. I have an Acer japonica ‘Okagami’ blazing in a scarlet pot. In the late afternoon sun, the enameled pot and brilliant leaf color of the maple make me smile every time I pass it. Another great sun enhancement is the vibrant translucence of the spikes of the Wing Thorn Rose (Rosa sericea subsp. omeiensis f.  pteracantha). 

Time of day can effect how you view colors. My husband commented on the evening violet glow of various rock cress seedlings (Arabis) in the evening. Another combination that looks great any time of the day but especially in the evenings is Artemisia, in my case the great old favorite ‘Powis Castle’ with Campanula glomerata or Linaria purpurea ‘Canon Went’. Though the yellow linaria is rightly maligned, Canon Went is a lovely willowy plant that seeds modestly and I find easy to control. 

Having silver or grey foliage in the sun is easy, there are lots of great sun-loving greys, such Artemisias, Helichrysums, etc. Getting a gray effect in the shade takes a bit more thought. Some suggestions are the many Heucheras that have silver tones (such as H. americana ‘Pewter Veil’ or H. micrantha ‘Pewter Moon), the Japanese painted fern (Arthyrium niponicum var. ‘Pictum’), and wonderfully veined wild gingers (Asarums).  

For brightening shaded areas, there is an easy chartreuse perennial grass called Bowles Golden Grass (Millium effusum ‘Aureum’). It seeds lightly and is a wonderful brightening agent in a woodland setting. Two other choices for perking up the woodland floor, are the golden creeping Jenny (Lysymachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) and the yellow form of baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii ‘Aurea’ syn. Hexine). Both of these tend to be less invasive than their green counterparts, but you should still keep an eye on them. Of course, slugs permitting, there are a plethora of sunny hostas in yellow-greens or variagated with white.  Where English ivy (Hedera helix) is not an environmental problem, as it is here in the Northwest, Butterball with yellow new foliage, (just keep trimming it to force new growth) and Gold Heart are suggestions. For shade and poor  soil conditions, you might want Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae to seed itself. 

If you have an area where you can let a wildling romp, Euphorbia cupressus is stunning with the pink flowers of Phuopsis stylosa. You do need to keep them contained; it’s a prize fight of thugs. Another euphorbia that blooms a bit earlier is Euphorbia polychroma. It’s bright leafy mound is quite nice with Hyancinthoides non-scripta, the common spring blue bells.  

Beware of the difficulties of timing on short-blooming plants such as peonies or Japanese Iris (Iris ensata). Give them long-blooming backdrop plants so if they decide to open a week early or a week late or are ruined by a heavy rain, your carefully planned show will still be a success. 

The bottom line on color is to plant the color combinations you like and not take anyone else’s word for it. If you wouldn’t wear it or wouldn’t live with it in your house, you probably won’t like it in your garden. Conversely, no matter what any deceased British doyens might say about magenta in the garden…if you like it, by all means plant it and enjoy it!


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