It’s too late for me. Save yourselves!


It would be nice to think that all the color advice we see
in books and magazines are just solutions looking for nonexistent problems, but
I know that there is such a thing as a garden planned for color.

Don’t try this at home.

I’ve just never seen one in person. I’m not counting
institutional displays (like the English show gardens I have here, Hestercombe
and Killerton) or the display gardens one sees at home and garden shows. Of all
the criteria to keep in mind , color has to be the most frustrating, unless
you’re absolutely starting from scratch. And even then, there are many
unpredictable factors. When I think of all the daring and celebrated color
combinations pulled off by such legendary gurus as Christopher Lloyd, I have to
wonder if a lot of them just happened by accident. The one surefire thing is to
have a huge swath of all the same color, though I have to think that would get
boring after a while.

As for me, whatever I try to do, I always seem to end up
with a bright pink/bright yellow combo somewhere. So I’ve made my peace with
color. I pay much more attention to foliage now than I ever did to color, as
well as to plant combos that contrast bushy/attenuated, higher/lower, and so
on. I’m gradually trying to build up areas of color combos I know I like,
though without any great expectations. And I try my best to ignore the scarily
growing library of books advising gardeners about color; most of them with
charts and color wheels to explain which contrasting and complementary
plantings will work best.



That’s why I wasn’t entirely thrilled to see Tom Fischer’s The
Gardener’s Color Palette
(Timber Press) arrive a few months back. Another book to make me feel
guilty about my color mistakes, I assumed immediately. Actually, it’s not. It’s
pure plant porn: 100 delicious images of gorgeous plants, some of which I have,
and some of which I’m planning to buy. No wheels, no charts.  Phew! I’ve been enjoying paging through it.

I feel comfortable now with striving for some color, during  most of the season, and no big gaps. How
about you? How do you handle color (or ignore it)?

This just in: Tom Fischer commented and left a link to his Portland garden. I have to say I noticed the gorgeous hardscaping first, but he does have a nice cool (blue/silver/pale colors) color scheme going as well.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I did not believe it could be done, until I visited the gardens created by Sandra and Nori Pope at Hadpsen house. I walked in awe past the borders of color they nurtured into being. The gardens were stunning, almost beyond belief. Have never seen anything like it since. And sadly, once illness caused the Popes to move on, the gardens were dug up for a new planting scheme. I’m sure something wonderful will live there again…it’s just that what the Pope’s achieved was unparalleled. The Pope’s book is Planting with Colour

    Am very curious if Fischer has successfully created a color garden himself.

  2. Do I ever know that bright pink, bright yellow combo. It was driving me crazy last summer.

    Lovely example of how to work with colour in the top photo. I guess restraint, and using masses of everything is a sure fire way to go.

    None of which I’ve ever been able to do.

  3. It seems like there are phases all gardeners go through. The first being:

    1st – Annuals (instant gratification)
    2nd – Perennials (more long term)
    3rd – Specific perennial (lilies, iris, hosta)
    4th – Woody plants (witch hazel or viburnum)
    5th – Miniature conifers (this seems to be the holy grail for plant collectors. They all end up here babying their Abies chimera called something like “odd-ball”.
    Last is the return to color and texture in the garden. The consummate gardeners come back around to the whole picture in the end.

    Or maybe this is just my personal experience? Anyone else see this pattern or variations of it?

  4. A garden with nicely grouped flower colors is sweet, but the trade-off is that when the flowers aren’t blooming–which is most of the year–you often have groups of plants with foliage textures and colors that do not compliment each other. In fact I’ve heard this complaint a handful of times from gardeners who’ve grouped plants by flower color.

    I don’t have anything against gardeners arranging their plants by color, but for 18 years as a garden designer I’ve focused on leaf texture and leaf color contrast and I let the flower colors fall where they may. I think the payoff is that the garden looks better year-round. Another payoff is that I spend less time calculating plant placement (and calendar juggling) and more time with plant enjoyment.

    In zone 7 we can garden and view gardens year-round. I work in an rare flower-color combo here and there, but it’s the foliage that carries the garden through the seasons. And the flowers provide the periodic exclamation points.

    During any month of the year, my wife and I will be gardening in our front yard and some dog-walker or child-stroller will compliment us on our garden. I often take a quick look around to see what’s catching their eye and sometimes find that very few things are flowering, but their fancy still seems to be captured by the contrasting foliage of the garden.

    If we all lived in gardens that were only viewed during a tourist season or only during their flowering peaks, a color-coordinated garden would indeed be lovely. For those seasons.

  5. I’ve always wanted to do a Black & White (and Green of course) garden. I even had the chance with my own yard but ended up going with a purples, pinks and oranges theme. One of my favorite combinations of plant colors is purple and orange. I love Lavender, Mexican Feather Grass and orange Daylilies together. I’m also a huge fan of Ceanothus, California Poppies, and Deer Grass in combination.

  6. Color comobos (flowers) that work usually came about by accident: basic orange poppy and dark blue/purple iris. Wow. When I tried to match colors the bloom times would never be what the plant label said. Maybe once every few years. Dam’ weather. I have always been more of a foliage person.

  7. I’m a hapless amateur when it comes to the flower beds, but I do have some coherence in the front of my house: most of the flowers are tomato red, magenta, and white.

    In the back, however, color has been a source of rage and frustration for years. I have beautiful pink roses in a range of pinks, and cannot figure out what to plant to with pink that A. I can stand and B. will survive my sandy soil.

    I’m trying to do something vibrant now: pink, blue, orange, yellow. Can’t say it’s working.

  8. I watch Valerie Easton closely. If it works for her, I’m willing to try it. Palest yellow, chartreuse, dark purple and all shades of orange — I got that from her. If pink sneaks in, that’s okay with me. If it offends, please look the other way.

  9. I had a visitor to my garden last year who said, “Wow, I’m impressed! You really take color and texture seriously, don’t you?” Yes I do. My plant palette (leaf, stem, and flower) is carefully thought out and I edit frequently to achieve interest and harmony on my 1/2 acre. But this isn’t where I started. After years of growing the latest thing or collecting dribs and drabs of one species or another, I finally have settled on plants that do well for me and provide season-long interest. Much like Foy above, my gardens have gone through stages as my experience has increased. After 25 years this just feels right to me.

  10. I have an almost exclusive cottage garden style. This is my personal favorite because it has a wild and free element to it which also allows for multiple colors. I have been very fortunate with colors working together but have never planned my beds according to color. My focus is in this order; larger plants vintage bush roses, lilacs, wigelia etc.., then medium sized plants such as lavender, hybrid tea roses, gaura, shasta daisies, echinacea, baptisia etc.., then onto the tall fill ins; hollyhocks, cleome, cosmos, meadow rue and then I focus on the ground cover to fill in the area alongside my hardscape or lawn areas. I try to avoid hot yellows and oranges, not a personal favorite, with the exception of black eyed Susans they are amazing next to lavender or other purple plants and offer great long lasting fall color. Other than that it all seems to work and somehow miraculously I have color all season long.

  11. Well I can relate to this post. I have several books on color in the garden and have found them dense and uninspiring. I understand the difference between tone and hue, but don’t really “get it” in a way that actually helps guide me in the garden. And like you Elizabeth I am more reliant on foliage and texture, but wonder if we’ve now tilted TOO far in that direction and aremissing out on the thrill that comes from seeing flowers burst into bloom.

    Having said that, Michelle O., if you would consider popping your pink roses with foliage rather than another flower, I’ve found most shades of pink look lovely with straw colored foliage (as in Mexican Feather Grass) or very deep purple/burgundy (as in Phormium ‘Dark Delight’. Both make a more interesting combination than the typical silver. Pale pink is a favorite garden accent color for me – it looks great with just about everything. (Even pale yellow blooms in my opinion, although I think I’m in the minority there.)

  12. Ah yes. I usually make quite an effort, and then the plants, which really do go so well with each other, bloom at different times. That California currant with the lovely tea trea — well, the currant was done blooming in March. The tea tree is just getting serious. Guess I’m going the “color each season” route.

  13. I have a few areas that I guard closely for color. Although some bulbs that were suppose to be lavendar came up blue! Usually, it’s the other way around. I also have areas where I just don’t worry about it. Mostly, I go for something blooming there all the time and the color focus changes through the seasons.

  14. In a way, it’s easier for me because I have strong likes and dislikes when it comes to color. And, I love unusual annuals, so I have longer bloom and more choice than if I used only perennials and common annuals. There are no white, pink, fluorescent, muddy (i.e. subtle) or pastel colors in my main flower beds, so what is left is jewel tones and dark colors. My favorite color is orange, so every year I try out a new combination of colors that look good with orange. The very first year, it was orange, red, and yellow. Then orange, red, and purple. Then it was orange, burgundy and gold. Then orange, “black,” and chartreuse. Last year, I tried orange with blue, blue-green, and silver, but the perennials were not cooperating so I’m doing it again this year with some different plants. For next year, I am contemplating orange, brown, and some third color. I do pay attention to form and to foliage, but color is what I find exciting. I, too, was bowled over and inspired by the now-bulldozed Hadspen garden — I wish everyone could have seen it!

  15. Thanks for mentioning my book, Elizabeth!

    I can’t say that I’ve consciously tried to create a color garden–my method pretty much boils down to planting a lot of blue flowers and other plants that look good with them (paying particular attention to texture and foliage–it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation). You can see pictures of my garden here:

    If there’s one point I wanted to make in the book it’s that color should be pure pleasure, pure indulgence–not a source of guilt or anxiety. I’m all in favor of throwing the color wheel out the window.

  16. Two of Piet Oudolf’s design principles help: Rely on plants where the amount of flower isn’t so overwhelming compared to the size of the plant. (More green to mediate other colors.) And plant in large swaths. (That tends to increase the distance between potentially inharmonious colors.)

    My favorite book on using color in the garden is Sydney Eddison’s The Gardener’s Palette.

  17. No, It doesn’t happen by accident and I am sorry to read that you are focusing on foliage instead.

    Beautifully colored flower gardens are achievable if we recognize that they are the result of humans tweaking nature until it looks right.

    I plant,then re plant and continue to move flowers around until I am happy. I never leave a bad color composition growing for more than 48 hours.

    When deciding what to plant, I focus on the end results. I don’t allow myself to fall in love with any one perennial. Its value to me depends on how it combines with other plants and other colors.

    If a pink and yellow combination displeases you, insert a blue or purple perennial between the pink and the yellow and watch how it transforms the composition.

  18. If your garden keeps ending up pink and yellow, maybe it’s because you LIKE pink and yellow. Since you’re garden is there for you to enjoy, admire those daring color schemes in other people’s gardens. Then, go with what YOU like; pink and yellow (with a little blue or purple to emphasis the pink and yellowness).

    I plant my garden for MY pleasure (okay, I have planted large portions in in the hot, deep colors my husband likes), and I feel neither guilt nor anxiety about it.

  19. If you can ever get to Newtown CT to see Sydney Eddison’s wonderful garden I would recommend it. She also wrote a wonderful book called The Gardener’s Palette that was published in 2002 and is full of gorgeous photos (no, not mine either! Mostly Steve Silk’s I believe). She also lectures about designing a garden around color. I agree with you though, it is not easy!

  20. I second the Sydney Eddison recommendation. I’ve been to her garden several times and in fact we asked her to speak at our graduation. You would be hard pressed to find a lovelier gardener.

    Very sorry to hear that Sandra and Nori are no longer involved with Hadspen House. I consider myself lucky I got to visit the garden in 2004 which is apparently a year before they retired and got to meet them and have my picture taken with them.

    As for me most of my attempts at creating a color themed garden in my own garden have met with failure simply because I run out of room and end up broadening the color theme so that I can incorporate plants I have run out of room for in the rest of the garden. I did manage to pull off a black and white garden with some success.

  21. I seem stuck in the ‘I love this plant – now where do I put it stage’ of gardening so I can’t worry about color combinations. Fortunately there are happy accidents like the crimson bee balm with Black Beauty lilies. I also have a collection of 70+ antique and shrub roses and all those colors go delightfully together. EAsy.

  22. When I buy perennials, I can’t shop by myself because I’ll come home with the following colors, without fail. Blues, purples, reds, and then stuff looks unbalanced.

    At this point I limit myself to what the beneficial insects will like, because it’ll be planted amongst the veggies anyway, or potted and moved throughout the beds as necessary. And, well, that kind of limits me to those colors, too, go figure. Until I get some coreopsis planted anyway 🙂 Or until I can divide more yellow lavenders off the mother plant (and for the record, yellow lavender isn’t; it’s just green anyway).

  23. After about ten years of a fairly shaded yard (and thus an emphasis on foilage) I was suddenly faced with sun–and more options– after removal of two overgrown, dying lilacs. It took me a while to get the hang of color again, but I definitely try to coordinate things, and mix up spiky with round, etc.

    When I buy new plants, it’s usually for the plant, not because I’m thinking “I need something blue here….” So then the challenge is, “where can I put this plant where it will play nicely?” Most of the time, I can find a spot. However, if I make a mistake, somebody moves!

  24. I think Penelope Hobhouse and Helen Dillon do a great job discussing color in The Art and Practice of Gardening DVDs. Dillon is all about extensively repeating key foliage plants to mellow out clashing colors. Elsewhere in the DVD, self-sown Atriplex hortensis seems to be a solution to many color problems.

    Personally, I think the only colors that absolutely must never be closely associated in a garden are the purer reds and yellows. I can’t tolerate them together.

  25. I have a color scheme. It’s called “Crayola, Box of 64.” (And somehow seems to rely, yes, on yellows and pinks) I once tried a silver garden , and it really was gorgeous, especially since with the silver scheme you have to work in foliage plants like Lamb’s Ear and Dusty Miller, but frankly I got bored, and now that bed is herbs.

  26. I’ve actually got the Tom Fischer’s The Gardener’s Color Palette book and its a really good book. I think with the colour of flowers its important that its personal to you and really what you like to be honest.

  27. My first objective is to plant something that will live. The longer it lives, the more I tend to like it. Annuals are used for those areas that nothing else wants to grow. At least this year. My second objective is to plant more plants than is reasonable so that I don’t have to weed so much. Survival of the fittest attitude. I have an orange flower garden in one area because a neighbor gave me crocemia or montibrita or whatever and the damn stuff is very prolific. But that fits into my style of not weeding. So I planted orange daylilies, ornage canna plus blue veronica, catmint. I also have wild areas nad manicured areas because I enjoy all of that on 1/2 acre. But then again the vegetable garden ends up with zinnas because my wife likes them. Do what you like, its your garden.

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