Colour themes for gardens – the single colour choice

The primary colours, planted in stripes at Auckland Botanic Gardens

We are still talking colour theory at great length here. In great detail. In part this is driven by the start of the new year of gardening conversation with Tony Murrell on Radio Live’s Home and Garden Show. Tune in around 7.45am on Sunday if you want to listen live. Both Tony and I like to clarify our thoughts before we go on air and for me, that often means extended conversations with Mark, whom I have been known to call my in-house advisor or expert. This week’s conversations have been around the relatively modern idea of gardens themed on a single colour.

If you think of colours, basically a monochromatic garden is either reds, yellows or blues, whites or maybe green or black. What they all have in common is that green is regarded as colour neutral in a tightly colour-controlled garden. So whichever colour you choose, it is plus green. White, however, is not colour neutral in a colour-themed garden.

I have nothing more to say about white gardens that I have not said already. Except to reiterate that the most effective white gardens that I have seen are comprised of heavy flowering white perennials, sometimes mixed with annuals or biennials – so summer gardens at their peak. For a list of previous posts on white gardens, skip to the end.

The ‘black’ garden in the village of Giverny. Need I say more?

Black gardens? Way better in theory than in practice and even then it will still be a novelty garden (you should be able to hear the disdain in my voice). I have only ever seen one and that was a public planting in the village of Giverny. It was underwhelming. I wonder if they just didn’t have the black ophiopogon (mondo grass) because it was all black pansies, dark ajuga and dark foliaged shrubs. Besides the fact that it seems extremely unlikely that black ever lifted anybody’s spirits or brought joy to their day, most plants that are described as black are in fact very deep burgundy. Leave it at the theory stage, is my advice.

I recently read an opinion that it is easier to manage a red garden than either blue or yellow. I beg to differ. And I think that comes back to the colour wheel and the role of white.

If you do a blue garden, the blues on the yellow side of the spectrum will be green-toned and therefore fit into the blue and green colour range. Those closer to red will throw to purple which sits perfectly happily alongside the blue and green tones. Add some white and you get pastel shades – pale blues, lilacs and lavenders and they all sit harmoniously in that blue colour palette.

The blue border at Sissingurst some years ago

I have seen two blue borders. The first was at Sissinghurst where we liked it much more than the famous white garden. The second was at Parham House in Sussex and it had been freshly renovated and was lovely. I am of the view that you can never have too much blue in a garden but that is personal taste.

The blue and yellow borders at Parham House

A similar scenario sits with a yellow garden. Head to the blue side and it is in the green shades. Head to the red side and it introduces orange. Add white and it is simply a paler hue of the same colour. I have only seen one example of an all yellow garden which may be a reflection on the unfashionable status of yellow and orange at this time in history. It was okay. Not stunning but fine and done well at Parham House again.

A random sampling of red foliage and blooms

Red is different. Pure reds are rare. Most lean either to the blue side which gives the purple and burgundy hues or to yellow which gives orange. Add white and you get a totally different colour – pink. There is no way I can see pinks as ‘pale red’. Then there are the many reds that are really closer to brown. I am not a fan of brown flowers, personally.

The red borders at Hidcote Manor Garden

I have seen two red borders – the classic red border at Hidcote and Alan Trott’s red border at his garden near Ashburton. Both were mixed borders and red foliaged shrubs mostly lean to the burgundy shades. That dominance of burgundy, even with splashes of scarlet, can seem quite sombre to my eyes. It comes down to taste.

Similarly, all green gardens can seem a bit gloomy to me, but I am writing this on a grey, rainy day. I can’t complain because we need the rain. Our rain deficit this summer is such that we are still an official drought area, but when I look out the window, the green does not look restful so much as sombre. To me, it is bold colour that lifts such scenes.

I am not convinced that it is as easy as some folks think to plant a monochromatic garden. At least not one of a high standard horticulturally and visually. I think it is easier to go to a two-colour garden (+ green, of course) but more of that next time. However, should you still hanker for a single coloured garden, I have one bit advice gleaned from looking at gardens created by some excellent horticulturists and skilled gardeners. Don’t be too slavish in your dedication to a single colour. Sometimes a flash of another colour can lift the whole scene. A splash of bright pink in a blue border maybe. Or a spire of blue blooms in a yellow garden. How  about the bright orange bloom of a canna lily with burgundy foliage in a red border?

Earlier posts on white gardens:

White gardens for the new age

Shades of white in the world of flower gardens 

White frou frou

The perils of the monochromatic colour scheme in gardening 






11 thoughts on “Colour themes for gardens – the single colour choice

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I was trying to remember whether it was you who commented on red being the easiest colour to work with but I couldn’t find the relevant comment so I couldn’t attribute it. I think some aspects of colour selection come down to taste but making the selection work to the best effect takes more than that and an understanding of how the colours work together is helpful.

      1. tonytomeo

        The difficulty I had with blue is that most blue flowers are rather purplish, and for that situation, purple was not good. Fortunately, agapanthus was not a problem, so there were quite a few of those. Red was not the easiest. It just happened to be my favorite because I was allowed to mix a bit of white in with it. Yellow was the easiest. I did not plant my white garden (with the naughty name) until the 1990s, in my own backyard. The front was mostly yellow and orange, which are not my favorites, but happened to look good on that home. Of course, after daring me to plant the white garden Brent dared me to plant a few black flowers in with it; and of course I did.

  1. Renee Collins

    I love blue flowers but I find ALL blue a bit sad. A beautiful suburban garden I used to live near was all blue except for the odd cheeky red poppy – just the right touch.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes. Our individual response to different colours is personal and often reflects associations in the past. How to put colour together well is a skill, however, that can be learned. I am so glad you saw my point about the odd flash of a foreign colour in a monochromatic garden.

  2. Diana Studer

    the wild card. I have planted blue and white. My blue is mostly purple. Since the lemon tree was there, I scatter some yellow – and that works for me.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I am pretty keen on that blue – yellow combination in its various forms. And a touch of lemon can work wonders to lift an otherwise somewhat flat colour scheme.

  3. Tim Dutton

    Our white garden area is punctuated by blue and white bearded Irises in spring, which works really well. We use cream or pale yellow flowers in there as well and a tiny dash of orange with a few pansies. It all works well. At the moment we are contemplating a blue theme for an island bed in the driveway. It is all rainbow colours at the moment, which works well unless you are looking at it from the living room window, because from there you see over the top of the bed to a predominantly pink bed beyond. The clash has been grating away for a while and the pink bed has become pinker this summer. We have some lovely blue flowers, not just purple, but true blue: Salvia ‘Blue Angel’ is the latest. If we remove the yellows and oranges from the island bed the ‘look through’ clash won’t happen.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Tim, I think you illustrate perfectly the actions of somebody working perceptively in a restricted colour palette. It is not that there are hard and fast “rules” so much as there are many small tweaks that will make a significant difference. Taking out the yellow and orange from the mixed colour island bed will certainly give a more restful, harmonious feel to it. They are the most difficult shades to work with in a mixed colour scheme and the quantity and placement of orange and yellow blobs of colour become really important. But having a bit of pale yellow or lemon in the white garden area – and the tiny touch of orange – may be all you need to give that extra lift to what could otherwise seem a little bland to the eye.

  4. Pingback: The two colour garden (plus green) | Tikorangi The Jury Garden

  5. Pingback: The garden of many colours | Tikorangi The Jury Garden

Comments are closed.