Be bold with colour. White is not always right.

My first ever video upload (two minutes of a mass of tui in a campanulata cherry tree) and notes on the magnolias in flower have just been posted on (our garden website).

Winter colour on the mandarin tree - and food for tui

Winter colour on the mandarin tree – and food for tui

It was most refreshing this week to receive an email from a reader seeking recommendations on a suitable sasanqua camellia for a hedge. “Anything but white,” was her request. I liked her instantly. White flowered camellia hedges can indeed look pretty and fresh but have become such a cliché in this country (especially as nine out of ten white sasanqua hedges are Setsugekka). It is most unusual for someone to specify colour.

We have a curious obsession with white flowers in this country. Why is Iceberg still the biggest selling rose here? Probably followed by the white Margaret Merrill or Rose Flower Carpet White. They are good plants but are they much better than other coloured options? No, they are just white. According to the Rose Flower Carpet agents, the coloured ones are much more popular overseas and it is mostly NZ that prizes the white. My informant put this down to our mild climate here and the fact that we are never snowbound. “If you spend months of the year looking at a white landscape,” he said, “the last thing you want is a garden of white flowers.”

I think it is conservatism. For the same reason, the trend is to have a near absence of colour on interior walls of the house (usually off white because pure white can be too stark and clinical to live with). Too often we play it safe in the garden. The garden backdrop of green is, for some curious reason, perceived as colour neutral and into that we drop another neutral in the form of white flowers. Call it serene, restful, stylish and sophisticated if you wish. In the right hands and at its best, it is. In lesser hands, it can be bland and dull. But safe. You can always be confident that your garden will be perceived by some as being in good taste if you keep to white, maybe with just the occasional colour thrown in as a feature (but just one colour, mind).

Fewer try the monochromatic scheme in other colours – though it is of course bichromatic (is there such a word?) because they are all plus green. Sissinghurst has its purple border, Hidcote its red border and both are beautiful in full summer bloom, but in NZ we tend to keep to white.

You can never have too much blue in the garden - especially if it is meconopsis

You can never have too much blue in the garden – especially if it is meconopsis

My first ever colour managed garden was to be all pinks, blues and whites. It looked pretty, but flat. Mark stood looking and said, “You need a touch of yellow.” He was so right. These days that garden remains predominantly pink, blue and white but it is the lemon and cerise (the latter, a surprisingly common colour in flowers) that give it some zing. Hence my choice of the Gertrude Jekyll quote below. Pastel gardens tend to be very feminine but they can be a little too “pastelle”, bordering on bland unless you get it absolutely right.

If you are unsure, go back to the colour wheel. It is touches of the opposite colour that will provide contrast. So yellow will be highlighted by purple, red by green and blue by orange. It does work. That said, I think blue flowers and foliage fit in with everything and you can never have too much blue in a garden. There is no theory to back that one up so it is entirely my personal opinion.

Colour to brighten a gloomy day - Magnolia Vulcan

Colour to brighten a gloomy day – Magnolia Vulcan

On a wintery day, however, I don’t want pastels or unrelieved green. Give me colour. The mandarin trees are a bright spot on a gloomy day, especially when populated by tui sucking the juice from damaged fruit. Most of our early flowering magnolias are in strong colours and can lift the spirits wonderfully with their over the top displays. The early flowering campanulata cherries lean to bright candy pink and cerise colours which are certainly a startling colour combination with the bright gold narcissi in bloom. There is no subtlety in any of those but I am not going to trade them for refined white flowers instead.

There is nothing subtle about the bright yellow of early narcissus

There is nothing subtle about the bright yellow of early narcissus

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

2 thoughts on “Be bold with colour. White is not always right.

  1. helenmirvine

    Abby why is it so difficult to buy the Camellia Sugar & Spice? difficult to propagate,lack of demand?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Camellia sales have dropped significantly in volume in this country and growers have fallen like flies. Pricing is ridiculous (you pay the same or less than for a new perennial) and the range grown has contracted sharply. It is not just Sugar & Spice – there are an awful lot of cultivars now that are no longer produced commercially.

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