Tag Archives: colour themed gardens

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 






Shades of white in the world of flower gardens

“The arums make the white of Persicaria polymorpha a very definite cream and highlight the problem I had with Sissinghurst of putting too many whites together in one space. White flowers always have something else in them, be it blue, pink, mauve or even brown, and these off-whites soon look grubby when they are shown up by the purity of something like Zantedeschia aethiopica. A cream rose such as Rosa ‘Nevada’ needs to be with the right partners, and, since it fades to pink, it is a shame for this ageing process to feel muddied by wrongly placed companions.”

Natural Selection, A Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson (2017)

I have been drafting a piece about contemporary white gardens for a publication, so my mind has been on white blooms. Yesterday, in the post-election hiatus and the gloom of a wet, grey day, I headed round the garden with my vintage flower basket to pick a selection of white and largely white flowers.

Ringing in my ears were Dan Pearson’s words above, even though I had read them so really they should have been flashing in front of my eyes – visible rather than audible, so to speak. I had not really got my head around the different shades of white before. Neither, I am sure, had the many women whom we used to describe as being of the Remuera genre back in the 1990s, but who would be known as “ladies who lunch” these days. These were the ones who were hellbent on putting in a white garden, à la Sissinghurst. They were numerous and, in our peak retail days, we met a fair number of them. I recall some for whom white flushed pink was out of the question. Candidates for their white garden had to be pure in hue. White and nothing else. I wish I had the Pearson quote back then. There are many, many plants that open from a pink bud to a white bloom.

Never did I hear any of these women getting their heads around the different shades of white. Nor indeed the role of cream and where creamy white becomes more cream than white. Let alone where cream crosses over to palest yellow. It is spring here, so we have a number of rhododendrons in flower. Of the maybe ten different white rhododendrons I picked, only one was what I would call pure white.

Is Narcissus ‘Thalia’ (on the left) acceptable in a white garden, though it is cream, not white? If ‘Thalia’ is acceptable, how about the narcissus with the pale lemon corona and white petals? And if that lemon corona is still okay, does this go across to ‘Beryl’ and other poeticus hybrids with white petals and small coronas which are somewhat stronger coloured and into the yellows and oranges? Where is the cut-off point? I tell you, this white garden business is fraught with problems and judgement calls.

Are green flowers permissible? If so, why not the white Moraea villosa with blue peacock eye markings or Lachenalia contaminata or Onixotis triquetra which are white with maroon markings? If the latter two are not acceptable, does that rule out the white rhododendron with maroon spotting. Is it not sufficiently pure? Is it okay for a white rhododendron to open from a soft pink bud? No? How about a soft lemon bud or one with a green cast?

I laid all the whites out to peruse and Mark walked into the room. All he wanted to do was to add yellow to lift the scene. I have never wanted a colour themed, pure white garden. It is just not our style and it is hard to stop it being a little flat, a little lacking in energy or pzazz. But if you want one, maybe start considering the importance of different shades and textures of white.

White is not always whiter than white and not all whites are the same. Detail matters and never more so than when you are taking on somebody else’s idea in your garden. Without that attention to detail, you will only ever have an inferior interpretation of the original but without the originality.

Postscript: Should I mention to overseas readers that the white arum lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica, can be found listed on every weed reference site in New Zealand, though I am not sure how widely it has been banned outright at this point? It is generally seen as a sign of poor land management to be growing it. Pure white it may be, valued it is not. It joins the giant gunneras and even the erigeron daisy as a botanical crime here.  

Garden Lore

By the time one is eighty, it is said there is no longer a tug of war in the garden with the May flowers hauling like mad against the claims of the other months. All is at last in balance and all is serene. The gardener is usually dead, of course.

Henry Mitchell The Essential Earthman (1981)

black gardens. Yes, black.

Black gardens. Yes, black.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like to do a black garden as counterpoint to the many re-creations throughout the world of the famous Sissinghurst white garden, I found you an example. This is one of a couple of “black” garden rooms at the Musée des Impressionnismes in Giverny.

Hmmm. There was no black mondo grass which would be the usual starting point for a black garden here but it illustrates the problem that there are very few all black plants. What you are likely to end up with is a sombre deep burgundy garden which is very flat in colour, brown-toned, even. The centrepiece here is Sambucus nigra or the cut-leafed dark elderberry which can look effective in some settings, if a little like the poor man’s maple. Clearly the dark ajuga groundcover is doing well but none of this is black. At the rear, you can see a quandary. The freshly planted pansies have flowers that are indubitably noir, but is the green foliage acceptable? Elsewhere were very dark foliaged plants sporting bright orange or red blooms. Should one cut the flowering stems off in the quest for purity of vision?

A black garden is perhaps best described as a novelty garden, better in concept than execution as most experienced gardeners will realise if they think through the plant options.

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