Colour

Hot Border at Wollerton
Hot Border at Wollerton

I was reading the April edition of The Garden last night, I know I am terribly behind, and I was intrigued by a short article by Helen Dillon on colour.  In it she talks about how gardeners have been influenced by  people such as Gertrude Jekyll, Lawrence Johnston and Vita Sackville-West on how we should organise colour in our gardens.  Jekyll is known for her colour borders which often had colours seamlessly blending into each other.  Sackville-West is known for her garden at Sissinghurst and in particular the White Garden.  Dillon describes how she had what she calls an epiphany and has said goodbye to colour themed borders.

Reading this reminded me of a conversation when I was on holiday in Cornwall last week.  We visited a garden where the owner is known for her colour theming and I decided to buy a couple of pots of Ixia.  The owner  warned me that the bulbs had got muddled and so the flowers would not necessarily be as per their label.  She was most concerned that they might upset my colour themed borders.  I reassured her that this was fine and I would take the risk but the comment really jarred with me and I was very surprised at how much.  I have been wondering why.

I have never colour themed my borders.  My borders, in theory, have a season of interest rather than a colour.  In recent years my interest has drifted more towards texture and foliage with the flowers secondary.  I have tried from time to time to really organise colour and put lots of thought into how this colour will work with that but inevitably the weather, like this year, leads to something or other flowering earlier or later than planned and the plan going out of the window.

Long border at Wollerton
Long border at Wollerton

I have been thinking about the gardens I have visited recently which I have really liked and why.  I loved the hot border at Wollerton Old Hall and I think this is because of its exuberance and complete celebration of late summer perennials.  I really liked the long border as well and I think this is because of the variety of colours and textures, albeit the colours are fairly restricted to pinks and lilacs. There is a white garden not far from me which is designed for wedding photographs and I am sure it is a beautiful backdrop but it didn’t excite me.  It was very well executed but it lacked something.  I think when you colour theme a border it really isn’t any way as simple as having just white or pink flowers.  You have to realise that there are green whites, blue whites, pink whites, yellow whites etc.  If you just plant a border or garden room with white flowers without taking this into account the tones will cancel each other out and it lacks sparkle.  People talk about colour but forget tone, they also seem to forget that some colours need other colours to lift them to help them shine out.

Part of a White Garden
Part of a White Garden

As Helen Dillon says getting a colour themed border right is difficult and from what I have seen it is much easier to create a colour themed border that looks nice rather than one that excites.  For me, and I know many will disagree, colour themed borders and gardens often seem too contrived.  Personally, I prefer more of a mix of colours but what I really like is a well stocked border with lots of foliage and texture rather than lots of bare earth waiting for some bedding or tender perennials to fill out.

The other thing I have noticed is that whilst I don’t have colour themed borders my garden seems to have colour themed seasons or even month.  Spring is definitely yellow and white with narcissus, anemones, snowdrops, catkins on the willow.  Currently in late Spring/early Summer it seems to have gone very purple with lots of Aquilegia, Alliums and Irises.  In fact I think it is just too purple and it needs some contrasts in there to zing it up – maybe some more of those cerise Ixia.  Late summer should see it have more vibrant pinks, reds and purples with dahlias and asters coming to the fore and then in Autumn it’s all reds, yellows and pale pink with turning leaves and colchicum.

I love colour and I find it interesting how different colours works together but I don’t think I will ever try to create a colour themed border – I think it is just too difficult to do really well.  Writing this post as led me to conclude that I’m still not 100% sure why the gardeners comment jarred so much and I think this is something I want to consider more.  I am interesting in how others approach colour since I see many beautiful borders on various blogs and I wonder what other gardens consider first: season of interest, colour, texture.  I look forward to hearing your views.

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18 Comments Add yours

  1. Christine says:

    Hi, reading this made me wonder if you had read Beth Chatto’s book The Green Tapestry which reflects on the fact that while flowers come and go the leaves are generally on display throughout.
    I love the tapestry of leaves looking at the spring wild flowers. Christine

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      I have read her Dry Garden and one other but I havent come across the one you mention. I will seek it out, thanks

  2. I started out focusing just on plants – I wanted to fill my borders with plants I was interested in, that fit together in terms of height and shape. However the color turned out I was fine with it. Lately I’m getting a bit more deliberate about color, but my borders are still not color-themed. It’s more like I try to stress a couple of dominant colors, and mix in other colors depending on a variety of factors.

  3. Annette says:

    Dear Helen, colour as everything else in gardening is a very personal matter. I agree that texture is important and still feel colours should somewhat feel right when combined. With all this business about colour theory, colour wheel etc. gardeners have turned into nervous little bunnies always worrying they may not get it right in the end. Mea culpa, even I contributed to this with design workshops I did teaching this very subject. Now I say “to hell with it”, let’s have fun – if it pleases you it’s absolutely fine! 🙂 We should free ourselves of rules and regulations more often…

  4. zora read says:

    Hi Helen, I love colour and I don’t really worry about whether a border is colour themed or not. I like lots of white and pale colours though because they do show up better at dusk and in the late afternoon onwards. I tend to think of season first and colour afterwards. Like you I like a border to be full of interest and texture but I prefer flowers to foliage although good foliage always makes a useful backdrop to the flowers. My garden is not big enough to have the flower clumps the size of the large gardens so the flowers have to make an impact on a much smaller scale.

  5. Pauline says:

    I suppose the nearest I have come to a colour themed border is my sunset border, but then sunsets have so many different colours in them! I also have my rainbow bog garden with different candelabra primulas and astilbes, the bee and butterfly border and a prairie border. So while there is a theme to the borders, I can’t say that they are really colour themed.

  6. Janneke says:

    I try to have a year round interesting border with various textures, foliage and colour. 24 years ago I started with a rainbow border, but through the years all has mixed up. I still have a white border but with real blues for excitement. It is just fun to play with different colours, foliage and textures.

  7. Diana Studer says:

    First I concentrate on indigenous plants. Then I use colour as a way to make them ‘formal’, Garden. But I’m using the colours nature gives, not this season’s horticultural horror. And my garden is, mostly a wide spectrum of greens, and silver and gold, and red and purple leaves.

  8. My interest has also drifted more towards texture and foliage with bloom color as an important element, but not the primarily element. I have planted so that there are color themes that cascade across the spring and summer. I have pushed much harder to do more a lot more with foliage and scent. I have tried to work hard to create spaces in the garden that pull you in and make you happy. I really enjoy the feeling of your garden, it makes me happy to just look at it and take in all of the detail.

  9. Christina says:

    My first consideration is always right plant right place. Drought tolerance and an ability to cope with cold winters is always my first consideration, then form, texture and how the plant will relate to those near it (colour being just one of the criteria) Christina

  10. Anna says:

    A thought provoking post Helen. Although I tend to avoid certain colours eg bright yellow I have never set out to plant a colour themed border. I tend to think of seasonal interest first, then scent and attractiveness to wildlife. Nature seems to have her own colour palette though which I think is related to the levels of light.

  11. djdfr says:

    Sometimes it is where will this plant grow, where do I have a spot to put it. Other times it is this area needs something, what would be good there? I do like to have something for each season.

  12. Shirley says:

    Having been a graphic designer it was leaf shape, size and texture that I was always drawn too and my first garden had many, many shades of green. I worked with a green tapestry for a long time which grew into golds, silver and deep reds (I know you aren’t a heuchera fan but I wouldn’t be without it for the deep, dark reds especially with a partially shaded garden).

    I still love foliage for colour but right now, in answer to your question above, my order would be flower colour, height and shape (that jumps from border to border, up and down, taking you through the garden). Next would be season of interest ( the longest possible hence my love for Bowles’ Mauve – I’ve been adding more) and finally texture.

    I’ve been having fun companion planting with colours for seasonal interest over the last couple of years and I’m loving the richness and froth of my borders right now. Although texture is now last on the list it isn’t any less important, I have a foliage framework in place that supports the whole garden and to me that seems to be the way to go to enjoy the flowers 😀

  13. Patty says:

    I had to think hard about answering this. I think overall colour is a secondary consideration. I am usually looking for certain plants for certain reasons. I do agree with another comment that flower colours tend to be dictated by season, at least where I live.

  14. Someone once told me it was soil chemistry that affected seasonal colour, which was why yellow tended to happen in spring etc, which is about all the colour theming I’m interested in. I love a jumble of colours, even the despised orange. I’m far more likely to choose something because it’s the right height, habit or has interesting leaves (or, indeed, is in the bargain corner…)

  15. Cathy says:

    I’m catching up on posts, so have been able to read all these comments before replying. It was indeed a thought provoking post, and made me consider the motivation for my own borders, some of which are indeed colour themed. I must admit that my blue and white border is becoming quite a success story, and feel that some blues can look out of place within a more mixed palette, although many of the bluer hardy geraniums sit quite comfortably alongside purples and pinks. Nevertheless, like many others have said, I choose plants that i like and then try to find somewhere to put them!

  16. Jean says:

    This is such an interesting post and discussion. I am a person with a strong sense of color, but I don’t have a good “artist’s eye,” so color themed borders have been a good way for me to achieve aesthetically pleasing results. My first color-themed border didn’t start out with a color theme; it was my first shade garden, and I was focused entirely on foliage in the design process. But when the first section of it bloomed, I realized that almost all the plants flowered in shades of pink and lavender. In continuing it, I made that an explicit design decision. My next color-themed border, the Blue and Yellow border, combines my two favorite colors and never fails to make my heart go pitter-patter.

  17. A very interesting post and discussion. I have been turning over the thoughts in my head for the past couple of weeks, and decided to dedicate my own post to the topic. It’s here: http://missinghenrymitchell.com/2013/07/03/color-themed-borders/

    It’s interesting, the local assumptions people make about how strangers do their landscaping. I can’t imagine having the same conversation over here, in my part of the US, as you had with the Ixia owner; people where I live simply don’t make assumptions about organizing perennial beds. Now, foundation shrubs or lawn, yes; plenty of assumptions there! (What do you mean, you don’t have any lawn? Where do you play football? What do you mow on Saturday mornings?)

    Because of expense, I have to build borders slowly, so while color may serve as an initial organizing principle, form, texture, and so on get added in for balance as the plantings slowly take shape. And I love to rip things out and move them around. Play and have fun!

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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