Monday, June 6, 2011

Color Echoes – the easy way to play with color.

When plants are at head height you can't help
but notice them! Here the purple tall verbena
(Verbena bonariensis) plays off the purple freckles
of the Turk's cap lily.
There are times when I read articles and books on using color in the garden that I feel as though I need a fine arts degree to understand it. I soon as I read the words ‘triadic’, ‘harmonious’ and ‘split complementary’ my eyes glaze over and I turn the page. All I want to know is what looks good together for heavens sake – not a lesson in color theory or a vocabulary quiz. It’s not that this information isn’t valuable and indeed it does offer a way to explain which colors reliably work well together; I just find it incredibly boring! Oops. That was probably very non-PC…

So considering I design container gardens and small landscapes for a profession how do I work with color to achieve an overall artistic and pleasing effect? The key to inspired design comes from the careful observation of the smallest detail. Learn to read the color cues presented in petals, buds, leaves and stems and you are on your way to creating something special. 
Geranium 'Rozanne' has hidden beauty

Rarely is a flower ‘just blue’. Look deeply into the delicate bowl of the ‘Rozanne’ geranium for example, and note how the periwinkle petals are punctuated by dark threadlike veins leading the eye down to the white throat from which rise rich purple stamens. 


'Diamond head' elephant ears offers
many possibilities. Color cues could be 
taken from the glossy black mature
leaf, the new green growth or the deep
red veins on the undersides

For outstanding foliage the giant elephant ears ‘Diamond Head’ (Colocasia esculenta) is one of my favorite tender plants. Standing erect on thick black bamboo-like stems the tightly rolled green spires slowly unfurl to reveal huge heart shaped leaves of glossy black. Peer underneath the canopy to discover the striking network of cranberry colored veins spreading like fingers across the green tinged plane. Who needs flowers with drama like this?

Memorable plant combinations are often those which display both repetition and contrast. A tapestry of plants is woven, linking together the individual threads of color so that the whole becomes even more beautiful for the relationship. A sense of belonging is achieved as repetition establishes and unifies the theme.

Flower combinations.

Breathtaking - the Westerland rose
seen here with a serendipitous
sweet pea.

It is when flowers intertwine that we can perhaps best appreciate color echoes. For that to occur the flowers of adjacent plants need to be at a similar height or else a climber used to nestle in amongst the flowers of its host. Westerland is a delightful climbing rose with a delicious citrus scent and flowers which transition from yellow through apricot to amber. It makes a remarkable pairing with pale magenta sweet peas and as you are seduced closer to enjoy the perfume, you can also appreciate how the blush of the sweet peas highlight the delicate magenta margins of each rose petal.
The 'peek-a-boo' effect. 

The element of surprise enhances our experience of a garden, and it may be something as simple as an unexpected splash of color peeking through a veil of leaves. The mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissin) is a dome shaped tree with light green fern-like foliage, best known for its pink powder puff flowers which give the effect of a polka dot umbrella. While hummingbirds, butterflies and bees relish this sweet bounty above the canopy, the dappled shade beneath is perfect for hydrangeas. To make the most of this opportunity, select the variety ‘Buttons ‘n' Bows’  (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Monrey’) which adds a perfect color echo with its bi-colored pink and white blooms in late summer. When glimpsed through a framework of low tree branches decorated with the mimosa’s pom-pom flowers, the effect is remarkable.

Foliage combinations.

Using shades of copper and peach to create a memorable
 Rhododendron ‘Teddy Bear’ is a delightfully compact cultivar which benefits from container culture or a raised bed so one can appreciate the deep rust indumentum on the stems, the undersides of the leaves and the new growth. Attention is further drawn to this feature by adding companions such as orange hair sedge (Carex testacea) with its wispy blades of olive green tipped in orange, and coral bells ‘Caramel’ (Heuchera) whose soft leaves range in shades of peach and apricot with the reverse side and stems in raspberry. The older dark green rhododendron foliage adds a necessary anchor to the colorful display.

Variegated weigela and this spotted
dead nettle are unlikely partners yet
repetition of the yellow note makes
this work.

Combining leaves which are of similar shape and size and are also both variegated may sound startling yet can be used to draw attention to an otherwise unremarkable plant. The spotted dead nettle (Lamium maculatum ‘Aureum’) can be lost as a groundcover since the color is a rather pale yellow with a white midrib doing little to add interest. I usually combine it with a high contrast leaf such as that of the black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’). It was an inspired choice on the part of the homeowners, however, to pair it with a variegated weigela (Weigela florida ‘Variegata’). Since the weigela foliage is a more elaborate bright green with a double margin of white then yellow, far from clashing with the dead nettle, the shrub both echoes its color and adds necessary contrast, thereby improving its visibility.

Flower & foliage combinations.

An easy color echo between the white
blooms of the phlox and the
variegated grass blades. Both stand
4-5' tall.

Green and white color schemes are always fresh and elegant. In late summer the fragrant stands of phlox ‘David’ (Phlox paniculata) are a welcome sight but can appear commonplace when grown in isolation. Pair it with the boldly variegated green and white maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegata’), however, and the phlox assumes a far greater presence with the duo making a striking statement. A group of Joe Pye weed ‘Gateway’ (Eupatorium purpureum maculatum) towering behind the grass would extend the theme, repeating the soft pink of the grass plumes with its large pink flowers and deep burgundy stems, creating a secondary combination which will last long after the phlox has finished blooming.
A gentle color association between the purple
fountain grass and a purple barberry.

When we think of ‘flowers’ we don’t usually think of grasses yet many produce beautiful feathery plumes which can be used to great effect in summer and fall combinations. Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) may be only hardy in warmer climatic zones but is worthy of inclusion even as an annual. The narrow, curving foliage has a rich burgundy cast while the pink, purple and tan foxtail-like flowers rise above this soft mound on slender stems to sway gently in the breeze. Movement adds a new element to our experience of a garden and can be used to heighten our awareness of otherwise overlooked elements. Placing the soft feathery grass with spiky purple barberries (Berberis) provides contrast in texture and form yet offers a subtle repetition of color. Both the grass and barberry are extremely drought tolerant and need full sun so make excellent cultural companions as well as design partners.

The lesson then is to be playful, have fun and experiment. Start by reading the color cues provided by key plants and using them to establish color echoes. By linking the color while contrasting the texture and form you have a fool proof recipe for success, providing that the cultural needs of the plants are also compatible. As you gain confidence introduce a contrasting color. It could be something as simple as adding black foliage to a sweep of yellow flowers, or planting a mass of the red crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ amongst dark green conifers. Decide whether your aim is to transition into a new color scheme, to draw attention to a particular feature or to cause a scandal amongst plant critics! Use these ideas as a springboard for your own imagination, to help you design a garden which is uniquely yours, yet with a greater understanding of color becomes an artistic expression rather than resembling a jar of jelly beans.

This article is an excerpt from my book ‘Garden Moments – designing with color’ which is in development.

Photo credits indicated on each image; One Thousand Words Photography and Le Jardinet

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