Most of us garden with many colours. The advent of the strictly controlled and restricted colour palette is a recent phenomenon, though it has gained such supremacy in some circles that it is seen as the height of style.
Over the past weeks, Tony Murrell and I have been discussing garden colour schemes – incrementally – on our Radio Live Home and Garden Show sessions of a Sunday morning. We started with the white garden, progressed to other monochromatic themed gardens, then the bi-colour options last week. This morning we wrapped up with the multi-coloured garden.
The bottom line is that anybody who has bought an existing garden will almost certainly have a multi coloured affair. And many of those who started off with a very purist and limited approach are likely to have fallen off the wagon and grown some plants which they love but which don’t adhere strictly to the original vision. In the end, it is a lot more interesting to work with a wider range of colours. Nature, after all, is random and does not play by arbitrary rules determined by humans. It is much easier to wield the iron hand of control over static interior design than it is in a dynamic garden.
Cottage gardens and meadows have traditionally been a mix of all colours in together. It was interesting to see Nigel Dunnett’s meadow planting at Trentham Gardens near Stoke where he is creating colour-themed meadows in some areas. I follow Pictorial Meadows on social media and I see a lot of their seed mixes are now themed on colour so I guess there is a consumer demand for this. But if you are going to go down the mixed meadow path, there will be interlopers and competitor plants that move in and unless you are actively gardening the area all the time – which rather defeats the rationale of this particular garden genre – the purist colour theming is likely to be disrupted over time.
If you are nervous about throwing all colours in together, there are a few techniques you can use. The first is to go pastel. When you think about pastels, there are no clashing colours. Done well, you get a lovely soft scene of gentle colours – all very pastelle, if you know what I mean. The opposite is also true. If you want a super-vibrant look, cut out all the pastels and whites.
Alternatively, you can tone down somewhat with plenty of white and cream flowering plants, as master gardener Keith Wiley has done in this scene. Lots of green foliage will also dilute any colour scheme.
A third approach is to cut out either yellow or orange. Cutting one but not both out is a bit like putting a soft filter over a photograph – it tones the whole scene down a few notches. Be cautious of how many bright yellows and acid yellows you use – maybe less than 10% of the plantings is all you need to lift the picture. More and the yellows start to dominate. I am referring to plants like some of the euphorbias, the unabashed bright yellow alstromeria and achillea, even the bold bright yellow rhododendrons like Saffron Queen or the uncompromising yellow azaleas. They all have their place but too many, and that is what your eye will be drawn to no matter what the colour mix is.
Colour all comes down to personal taste in the end. But I would suggest that only novices and newbies plant in alternating colours like a circus tent. This applies to bedding plants and also to more permanent shrubs. Too many people have asked me about planting alternating red and white camellias as a hedge. Best not, in my view, but feel free to disagree.
In his early twenties, Mark spent many hours getting to terms with colour theory by studying the Impressionists. To this day, when we are looking at other people’s gardens and analysing planting schemes, he will pull out the colour theory. If you want to get a better understanding of how colour works, there is a whole lot more in terms of both the juxtaposition and quantity of different colours. I work instinctively but Mark is very good on coming up with what shade or colour will lift a small scene that is lacking visual impact.
If you come across a garden that really, seriously impresses you with its use of colour, maybe take some time to stand and look and analyse. There will be transferable lessons you can take away from working out the proportions of the colours used. Which colours stand out? What proportion of the total is each colour (roughly – 30% blue or is it closer to 50%?) What is planted adjacent to that colour that makes it so distinctive? Is it a colour on the opposite side of the colour wheel and is it also used just as a highlight or in equal quantities? You have to be quite keen to do this sort of thing but I am assuming that many who read my blog also like the idea of upping their own skills’ level. Developing a better understanding of how colour is being used has increased my appreciation of the large scale plantings Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf, is doing.
The ultimate skill, in my book, is the ability to change the dominant colour scheme of a garden as the seasons progress. I have only been strongly aware of it in two gardens I have seen. The first was the upper area in Keith Wiley’s “Wildside” in Devon. We looked at it in early to mid-summer when the dominant colours were oranges, yellows and tawny shades with some judicious use of cerise and pink but we could see what was soon going to come into bloom and the whole scene was destined to be dominated by blue a few weeks later. We would have gone back to see but we weren’t in the UK for long enough.
The second example I have mentioned before – Nigel Dunnett’s garden at the Barbican in London. Again, we were looking in early to mid-summer when the dominant colours were soft yellows and tawny apricot shades with a touch or three of purple. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw a photo of the same garden in autumn and it was spectacularly white. We are not talking changing bedding plants like they used to at Versailles. These gardens have permanent plantings executed with such skill that the colour schemes change with the seasons. This is a new pinnacle of gardening skill in my book.