Color-themed borders

Helen at The Patient Gardener’s Weblog offered some interesting thoughts on color-themed garden borders, and I’ve been turning her remarks over in my mind since I read her post. I also found the article by Helen Dillon to which she refers.

My 2c: It’s your garden, so plant what you like.

If I had been in Helen’s shoes, and spoken with the woman about the Ixias, I imagine that the thing I would have found jarring was the assumption the woman made about how I garden. Perhaps it is a more sensitive cultural issue on the other side of the pond, where gardening is a serious pastime, homes and gardens are closer together than in the US,  culture is (arguably) more traditional and uniform than in the US, and there may therefore exist certain assumptions (oh, those!) about what should be done with quasi-public space, but I think the gardener should grow what she likes, how she likes it, and not worry about what the Joneses say. As for me, I have borders organized by color, or color combinations, because I like them.

In Defense of Color

Color works well as an organizing principle, but experienced gardeners will acknowledge that color is only one piece of a potentially grand puzzle. It helps to understand the limitations of color as well, to place it in proper perspective in the overall garden-planning scheme of things: Blooms are ephemeral, and orchestrating particular combinations to bloom simultaneously can get rapidly beyond the capabilities of any gardener, however experienced. Sadly, none of us can control the weather.

Some years ago I read The Gardener’s Palette by Sydney Eddison. Eddison’s perspective on color as a painter helped me to better understand the nuances of color, and how colors can work together to achieve certain effects. Understanding that, I now build borders and beds using either complementary or analogous colors, because I like to see how one plant’s color makes another’s stand out.

I have a hard time seeing colors when they’re in a crayon-box collection; I find the colors compete too much with each other, with whites and yellows usually winning. But when organized with two or three other colors, it’s easier for me to appreciate the nuances of a given plant’s bloom: how blossoms fade from bright yellow to near-white or vice-versa, or from blue to faint pink in a columbine. Selected groupings also help me better discern tones in foliage, which has much more staying power than flowers.

I try to maintain some flexibility with my color plans, though, and will break rules I’ve set for myself: Along my front walk, for example, my garden is organized primarily around red-violet tones: Hemerocallis ‘Chicago Royal,’ rose campion, Joe-Pye weed. It strayed into darker, more pure purples, and some faint pinks, like the bottlebrush flowers of Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’. And then, this year, I discovered school bus-yellow lilies growing smack in the center of the bed. And I liked them there, so they’re staying.

I like to experiment, to build gradually, and to move things around. I like to test the boundaries of what will grow where. I have areas in my garden with strong sun, and lots of areas of deep shade. It is fascinating to me to discover how plant colors (foliage and flower) read depending on the light levels available. 

Texture and foliage and form are all equally important to color in achieving an attractive or compelling presentation. These long-lasting qualities provide important balance in the landscape. They can catch the eye, or let it rest. They allow different plants to stand apart from one another in the overall composition. But we are all drawn to color, so I don’t see any reason why the gardener should not use it however he wants, and learn to play with it and enjoy it. The same goes for texture, or form, or season of interest, or whatever creative principle the gardener can identify. All approaches are valid.

Above all, the garden is for the gardener. As Ann Lovejoy said, “Plant what you like. Martha‘s not coming over.” And so, if the gardener wants to plant, as Dillon writes, using the Smarties-box colo[u]r theme, she should do so. She is the one doing the labo[u]r, after all.


2 thoughts on “Color-themed borders

  1. I have to remember to come back to this post and give it a second going over, lots of good observations! I’m just recently trying to work certain color themes into certain areas, so far so good but it’s nothing I would come close to calling “designed”…. I think I’ll always be a sucker for a big bright bloom and put it wherever I think it will grow best, but I’m trying to show a little self control. (trying and doing can be awfully far apart though)

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful article. Your approach seems very wise. I’m going to look for the Eddison book. I am not widely read on garden design, but I do like to explore some of these formal topics to pick up tidbits of wisdom here and there. Happy Fourth!

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