When I posted last week about daylily colors and my general sense that they are often not as advertised, I got some comments that really surprised me. There were, of course, the "stop whining" comments. (Hey, I grew up in New Jersey! Whining is our metier!)
But the ones that really interested me were the ones from ornamental gardeners who are not interested in color!!!
There was one faction that agreed that color schemes are just too hard to pull off.
Then there were the sophisticates, best represented by the Renegade Gardener, Don Engebretson:
Study gardens, via pictures or in person, that sizzle, that drop the jaw, that lift the spirit while lowering the pulse, and you will see that the secret to a beautiful garden is to place plants so that there is constant contrast between the color, size, shape and form of the leaves. Color of bloom is secondary.
The creator of my favorite garden in the world, my friend Gerald, has in his fourth or so decade of gardening reached an even higher plane of sophistication. He once gently confessed to me, "I’m not really interested in flowers any more."
All I can say, is, I’m not there yet. I’ve spent most of my adulthood obsessing over my vegetable garden. It’s only in the last four years that I’ve done big ornamental beds, since I acquired a city garden behind a Victorian house. And while leaf shape and contrast are part of the fun in putting together beds where beauty is the point, to me, the real interest is in the fantastic array of delicious flower colors and assembling them as carefully as I once used to dress myself, back when I was young and cute and vain.
Of course, the chicest people in the world, the French, throw together insanely clashing flowers, if the photos in the book The Secret Gardens of France are any indication. Combinations of orange, blue-pink, and crimson seem to be popular. At Giverny, which I actually visited once while the tree roses were in bloom, these hot clashes are artful. In other gardens, possibly a sign of carelessness.
But I care, not necessarily about harmony, but about interesting color contrasts. In the front of my house, I have tomato red, white, and purple, a really refreshing combination. In the shady spot near my little goldfish pond, it’s all white, green, and brooding maroon. Then, in the backyard, I’ve been inspired by my gorgeous climbing honeysuckle, whose flowers are blue-pink and apricot, so there are lots of peachy, yellowish, creamy flowers punctuated occasionally by a loud rose pink.
Of course, I often fail at my schemes, sometimes because I’m tricked by names like Little Grapette–and sometimes because something that doesn’t go turns out to be too beautiful to yank. I planted a handful of Endless Summer hydrangeas a few years ago, before I decided to banish any Anglophile blue from my backyard. They languished, I forgot about them, and when I remembered, thought idly about ripping them out. This year, they’ve taken off, and my God, those blue balls of bloom are so stunning–well, I can’t bring myself to get rid of them just because they don’t work in the scheme.
But enough musings from the amateur. What does the Queen of the Plant Palette, Gertrude Jekyll, have to say in her book Colour Schemes For the Flower Garden?
A. Planting for color is hard:
To plant and maintain a flower border, with a good scheme for colour, is by no means the easy thing that it is commonly supposed.
B. Think like a painter:
It seems to be that the duty we owe to our gardens is so to use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures; and that, while delighting our eyes, they should be always training those eyes to a more exalted criticism.
C. Have a different garden for every month.
I believe the only way in which [a color scheme] can be made successful is to devote certain borders to certain times of a year; each border or garden region to be bright for from one to three months.
That’s fine if you are gardening on a substantial estate, less practical in any smaller garden.
Anyway, I’d give you some more of Gertrude’s advice on planting for color, which I’m sure is excellent, if I could stand to read any more of this deadly prose. But I’ve tried before and find I just cannot.