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Gardening with Colour
by Jodi DeLong
by Jodi DeLong


Writing about plants and gardening is just one part of Jodi¹s professional writing business. She¹s been a garden columnist for the Atlantic Co-operator for over five years, and last year was invited to do a biweekly column in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Canada¹s oldest independent daily newspaper. In addition, she writes regular garden features for Saltscapes magazine, Manitoba Co-operator, Grainews, Rural Delivery, and has also had various feature articles in Canadian Gardening, Cottage Life, Complete Canadian Gardener, Aquascapes Lifestyles, and East Coast Gardener. Jodi sits on the National Board of Directors for PWAC, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, as Atlantic Regional Director, and is also a member of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. When she¹s not writing, she¹s gardening, reading about gardening, photographing gardens, thinking about gardening, or ignoring the housework.

November 18, 2007

Part of the reason we garden is to enjoy a burst of colour to accent or enhance our lives. A restful display of blues seems cooling and relaxing; a sunset garden of hot reds, oranges and yellows catches the sun’s waning light and erupts in warmth; white and pale yellow light up the night with their glowing; just how many greens there are can be appreciated in a foliage display.

Colour affects how we feel, as anyone who has ‘had their colours done’ or experimented with feng shui can attest. Warm colours, such as yellow, orange and red are exciting and enlivening, while the cooler colours such as blue, purples and greens are calming, relaxing, refreshing.

White is in a category all on its own in the garden, being a colour that can draw attention to an area and a good way of contrasting or separating other colours. It can also be a spectacular star in an all-white (and green) garden planting, such as the famous white garden of Sissinghurst. plants with white flowers or with variegated green and white foliage show up wonderfully in moonlight or with subtle lighting such as solar garden lamps, and in a shaded area tend to brighten the plantings.

One of my favourite garden writers is the always erudite and entertaining Christopher Lloyd, an octogenarian living and gardening at his home “Great Dixter” in England. Lloyd says that with colour, his philosophy is to learn the rules of colour so that you can break them, and then, “go for it!” He frankly confesses to not understanding the complicated “colour wheel” which some designers talk about, and if Lloyd doesn’t see the need for such rules, that’s good enough for me.

Experts such as Andrew Lawson tell us that warm colours tend to appear closer than they really are in a garden landscape, so can be used to pull parts of gardens together. Cooler colours tend to recede into the landscape, and are more subtle. If you want your garden bed to look larger, put warm coloured plants at the front of the planting and cooler colours further back, or you can reverse this planting to narrow the appearance of the bed.

A single bed dedicated to one colour can be spectacularly stunning, although it’s a good idea to try incorporating as many different foliage shapes and textures as possible to help bring even more interest to the planting. Don’t stick only to one shade of your chosen colour, either: if you’re using red, for example, explore all the possibilities from the softest shades or tones right up to the deepest, richest red you can find.

It’s been my experience that colours I love in the garden don’t work for me elsewhere. I love the look of many orange flowers, from the melon coloured osteospermum to the barbecued-potatoe-chip million-bells to the many shades of orange to be found in poppies, lilies, and daylilies: but I don’t want orange anywhere else except in my refrigerator as carrots or oranges! If the cheery orange pansies and blue anagallis didn’t delight you as you thought they would, you can heave the pot onto the compost heap, or else plant something with a different colour in it to change the effect.

In the spring, one of the first perennial displays is a show of electric green euphorbia, shocking magenta rock cress, and periwinkle blue veronica. This might cause some less adventurous souls to shudder, but after a colour deprived winter, this explosive patch of colour is like a tonic to my spirits.

Some gardeners like to work with contrasting colours, making a bed of primarily purples, for example, but introducing some accent plants in yellow to give the planting more of a lift. One project on my ever growing list of garden goals for this year is to plant a bed of all blue flowers. Blue can be a real challenge to work with, because so many plants that are said to have blue flowers actually have violet, lavender, mauve or other related shade in their flower rather than true blue. I’m working now on compiling my blue plant want list, and also intend to add a contrasting colour to the planting, probably several clumps of Achillea (yarrow) in shades of yellow and orange, to brighten and accent the garden.

When you’re looking for potted perennials in the spring, resist the urge to purchase the ones that are in flower. They’ll be done their show of colour earlier than they normally would be, and you’ll find yourself with a nice blend of green foliages and little flower display unless you plan for this lapse and plant annuals to fill in the lull.

If you love the joyously abandoned look of a garden that is a riot of colour, consider massing plants of the same colour into drifts. This way, you’ll see not dots of colour that cancel each other out, but dramatic washes of blues, magentas, whites, crimsons, golds, and other shades.

Got a plant that you really love, but that you think clashes with others around it? Before you dig it up to replace or give away, pick a flower from the plant and meander around your garden trying it with other plant combinations. You’ll find a better match for it this way, or perhaps decide on a contrasting combination to work with. But resist the urge to dig the plant and move it immediately, especially if it’s high summer, or you’re apt to find your plant languishes or even dies from the shock of transplanting.

Don’t forget also to consider the myriad shades of green, and the variations of foliage colour, that also are incorporated into your gardening plans. The silver spangled leaves of many pulmonaria species are even more delightful than the brief spring display of flowers. Every year plant breeders are coming out with new colours of coral bells (Heuchera species) with foliage in a rainbow of colours from mint julep green to amber to deep burgundy fretted with silver. Many shrubs also have variegated or coloured foliage; my current favourite is ‘Rose Glow’ Japanese Barberry, with marbled pink, white and bronze-purple foliage.

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