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.
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.
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.