Gardener Indicted For Color Scheme


Color_1 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.

Color 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. 


  1. This question of color is indeed surprisingly provocative, so I’ll jump right into the fray.
    1. It doesn’t take estate-size properties to have different colors in different times of the season – they can co-exist. For example, a border can be all pinks and purples in the spring, then hot summer colors by August.
    2.I’d amend what Don the Renegade says about color being secondary. To me, it’s not foliage that’s most important; it’s woody structure and whole-plant form, which are what we see the OTHER half of the year. When I see summer blooms, even all-foliage lushness, I convert the garden in my mind to winter and assess whether or not it looks like crap then, when we need our gardens the most. Even in the north, I’d want lots of good-looking conifers to hold the snow and some gorgeous bark.
    3. I do notice that visitors to my garden, especially the nongardeners, seem disappointed by the scarcity of blooms. I wish I could quickly convince them of the merits of form, bark, structure and foliage, but there’s no substitute for the experience of gardening over the decades, I guess.

  2. Great post and refreshing honesty, Michele. Susan, I enjoyed reading your comment too. I’m too tired to come up with a cogent remark of my own just now, but I’ll be back to follow this thread.

  3. You have to have flowers! However, I have totally failed–as you will see!–in color harmonizing. No matter what I do, I get yellow and pink–not a fortunate combo. In my main sun perennial bed, that is. I am luckier with containers and that’s why I love them. You have much more control.

  4. So many people are intimidated by colour. I like to tell the customers where I work to plant what they like to look at ( after the plants requirements are met). You can never go wrong if you plant a colour you love. Who cares if things “match”. As for green, well green is nature’s little black dress, great with any colour, so chic on it’s own .

  5. I had my garden “designed” when we moved into town. The parts that were designed I love all year round, different willows for movement and a lovely green, grasses, coneflower, daisies and liatris in large drifts. The part he left for me for my plant collections and cutting garden looks terrible next to the soothing movement of the designed area, however I love to collect plants, and I love floral design, so how do you marry those things together to look as great as the designed swaths?

  6. As many people do, I moved into a house that had once had someone who took good care of the garden. Several years after they had left. I have been here three years now and discovered something new each year. Last year I was wowed by the poppies that magically appeared by the fence (bright red-orange). This year it was the tiger lillies that sprung up in profusion (where were they last year?).

    The color scheme appears to have been red/orange/yellow/white warm colors on the side facing the road, and beautiful purple, blue, white and deep maroon on the other side. I am sure they gave a lot of thought to the position of their plants, and just as sure half of them died before I moved in.

    So I am just working with what I have and not really stressing it. Seperation by warm/cool colors seems to be quite enough challenge for me, and I know I can find a place for just about any plant I want to bring home on one side or the other.

  7. I think a lot of it (besides personal taste) depends on what exposures you have. On my 0.9 acre lot there are about 26 mature trees, so I have to work with foliage color, shape and form since there is not going to be a lot of flower color. However, I have to say the startling red of the Lobelia cardinalis against all my shades of green right now is all the more impressive for the contrast!

  8. As far as color scheme “rules” go… I think that they are very good to know. However, like any rules, the fun (and the really memorable stuff, like those French gardens Michele mentioned in the original post) is in breaking the rules purposefully and artfully.

    I am mostly with Michelle Derviss on form/texture/leaf color/etc. However, like Karen if I really like a plant in its entirety I can always find a place for it!

    I was recently very surprised when I went out to take tally on Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. I had this vision of how colorful my garden was in my head, and yet my bloom list was very short. Turns out the color was mostly from foliage… but I do have some individual flowers that I love: amaranth, canna lilies, toad lilies, and brunnera are among them. I just think about leaf combinations first, then make sure that the flower combinations are maximized with the foliage combinations after that. There are even a few flowers that I love but will probably never find their way into my garden because their foliage doesn’t work for me.

  9. I have to work at color. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Maybe that’s why I like the Piet Oudolf principle of having a low bloom-to-plant ratio. You’re less likely to get awful combinations that way. Or sticking in a lot of gray plants that provide relief between colors that don’t go together so well.

    Anyone serious about color in the garden has to read Sydney Eddison’s books. (Nicest, kindest gardener I ever met.) There’s a little primer on color theory in the garden here:

  10. I’ll simply offer up what the late great Christopher Lloyd taught me through his books: “learn the rules of colour…so you can break them!” Some people like all pastels. Others like hot colours. Others focus on foliage of whatever colour. If we’re gardening like crazy and having a hell of a lot of fun, who cares what some colour-diva says? Iffen people don’t like my colour combinations or plant selections–they don’t have to look at them.
    Rant on!

  11. I’ve visited gardens that are built around a concept of texture, size and shape of leaves. They are very lovely, but they appeal to me as much as a grey flannel suit in summer. Very stiff, serious, traditional.

    With summers so short here in zone 2, I want a PARTY in the summer. I want an explosion to occur in the garden. COLOR! Yea! FLOWERS! Yea! Things that grow madly with all the exuberance that is summer around here.

    As for color schemes–I don’t think its something that necessarily needs a great deal of thought. Actually I think that garden beds organized with an obvious color scheme are kinda unattractive. Its the same as going into someone’s house who has all of their living room furniture matching and a complete bedroom set. How 80’s. Eclectic is in, haven’t you heard?

    Things come into and out of bloom throughout the summer and the timing is never exactly the same it seems, so those lovely combinations you imagined often never materialize. But your hard work is rewarded with combinations that you never imagined and look quite lovely.

    I think if you like BOLDER colors (vibrant red, orange, yellow) clash is a more of a problem. To avoid, I stick to one side of the color wheel and add a few plants with blooms from the other side of the wheel or white blooms for a bit of punch.

Comments are closed.