When I put my thinking cap on about garden colours, it was clear that a two-colour garden is much more flexible than trying for the monochromatic look. Technically, a two colour garden is three colours but we continue to regard green as colour neutral in a gardening situation. Truth be told, unless you are into massed bedding plants, the vast majority of gardens end up being predominantly green so whatever colours you add in – whether by way of flowers or coloured foliage – are highlights, not the dominant colour by mass.
A two-colour scheme gives so many more choices while allowing the streamlined look of restraint that some people favour. When I have played with flower boards, it is a lot more fun mixing and matching with two colours and the results are often more atmospheric. For a long time, I wanted to theme a garden on blue and yellow. It still remains one of my favourite colour combos and is one I have used on several occasions when it comes to interior decoration. It started when our eldest daughter chose a strong sunshine yellow for her bedroom and we teamed it with navy blue soft furnishings. In our current house, I chose a more subdued yellow – more like cornfield yellow teamed with French blue and I have never tired of that combination. In a garden, we can put together ALL the yellows and lemons with the whole range of blues. It is what I would call a classic combination.
If you choose orange and purple, the look becomes very different – far more tropical and contemporary rather than the classic. It all comes down to personal colour preference in the end. I once contemplated the practicality of a garden in buff and pale blue – inspired by a gorgeous buff coloured rose. I wondered about using it with soft blues like the pretty nigella and the buff-brown grasses that seed down here. I realise in retrospect that my mental image did not incorporate green which would have altered the look entirely. Clearly the rose was already defoliated in my mind’s eye so that only the flowers were visible and I abandoned that idea altogether when I found that the rose was disease-prone and would need regular spraying to keep it looking anywhere near acceptable.
I recall a startling street scene in Rome, somewhere near the Vatican but I can’t find my photos of it. The buildings were all sandy gold in colour and the street trees were all burgundy (maybe copper beeches or one of the red-foliaged plum trees). It was very uniform – the buildings were all very similar and the trees were identical. There was no green. The combination of deep burgundy and sandy gold was strong and certainly had the wow factor.
Maybe look at bedding plant displays in public gardens and on traffic islands, not for the plants used, but to see the different colour combinations. Because if you are going to try the two-colour route, it is entirely personal taste as to which colours you like. There are no rules to this. Just pick a colour and move across the range of hues in that colour, rather than limiting yourself to just one shade of the colour. Gardens are never static so it is a more dynamic medium than interior design.
In New Plymouth, Judy Gopperth, opens her garden called Hirst Cottage for the annual garden festival at the beginning of November each year. Hers is one of the few places I have seen that has a totally disciplined approach to colour management in a smaller town garden. Basically, it is themed on red and white. Except it is more a case of theming on white and green (as she describes it herself) with red highlights and black as a background. The red appears mainly in small touches in the hard landscaping and the soft furnishing and it creates a bold contrast to the dominant white and green. It is a completely controlled use of colour which unites the outdoor space with the house (in her case, a very early historic cottage).
This style may appeal to people living in urban situations where outdoor space is very limited and is solely there as an extension of indoor living space. The designer look, I guess. It is unified, crisp and uncluttered. In theory, you could change the look relatively easily by swapping out all the red for another single colour.
The one colour combination that I personally dislike intensely is pink and yellow. I have seen it looking pretty in clear pastel pink and lemon in a tulip display in Eden Gardens in Auckland, but hideous in a display at Floriade in Canberra. It is so easy to get wrong. There are many murky shades of pink – pinks with brown or purple tones within them – which can look lovely in combination with other colours. But put them with hard yellows and I shudder. There are plenty of plants to choose from. I have seen many a murky pink with yellow variegated foliage which have managed to achieve the combination in a single plant. I am not at all keen the combination of a bright yellow kowhai and the cerise pink of a cercis that I drive by each spring in a nearby garden. Nor do I like bright yellow grasses combined with pale pink flowers. But that is entirely personal taste. If a carefully colour controlled garden is what you want and pink and yellow pleases your eye, go for it. Don’t let me put you off.
There are times in my life when I have tried using a hugely restricted colour palette but I always seem to add in another colour to give some visual oomph. Over time, it has become more a matter of deciding what colours to leave out – so a process of exclusion rather than starting with just a two or three colour palette. But that is a different approach altogether.
My final suggestion is that if you want to try a two-colour garden and you lack confidence, try any colour plus white. That is the safe option.