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Colour in the Garden

When considering colour in the garden, plants are usually the first thing that spring to mind, and of course are a vital component in 99.9% of gardens (there are a minority of gardens that have no plants in them whatsoever, but that is another article in itself). Yet colour in gardens can be introduced in other forms too: paint, containers, light etc. These elements are constant within the garden while plant colours are far more transient and come and go with the seasons.

A few years ago the use of vibrant colours such as bright pink, vivid blue and yellow, usually painted on walls and fences, became very popular with contemporary designers. However while these colours are wonderful in countries which have very strong light, in Britain they can be too overpowering and simply look odd in our landscape. Neutral colours such as cream are more in keeping and if vibrancy is required, can be contrasted with bold choices of plant colour. Using local stone as inspiration, colour can be chosen to fit the landscape so giving the garden a sense of place. As colour is such a personal thing it is wise to try out different ideas by painting small sections of wall or fence before covering the whole thing.

Coloured plant containersOne easy and relatively cheap way to introduce colour to the garden is using containers. Today containers come in a huge variety of materials, shapes, sizes and colours. The choice of plant for the pot needs to be thought about carefully as colours can clash horrendously. If choosing a very bright container the use of a simple green topiary specimen can be very effective.

Plant colour is a whole different ball game – it comes and goes throughout the year. Spring is dominated by yellows, pinks and blues, followed in summer by practically every colour of the rainbow and in autumn the colours change to rich yellows, reds and golds as leaves fall before the winter. Learning to blend all of the colours into a successful design is one of the biggest challenges for a designer.

At the turn of the 20th century one of the world’s most successful plant designers was developing a new way of planting. Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) was an artist before becoming a plantswoman and she used her understanding of colour to ‘paint’ with plants. What we now think of as the quintessential English cottage garden was developed by Jekyll using her combined knowledge of colour and plants. She believed in harmonies of flower colour, blending similar tones together. Her long, deep borders would be planted along their length with graduating colours from cool to warm shades and then back to cool again, providing a restful journey for the eye along it’s length.

Philadelphus coronariusEven in Jekyll’s flower-filled borders an essential element was green. Green has to be one of the most important colours in the garden, coming in an almost infinite range of shades. There is everything from the lime-green of Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’ to the blue-green of Stachys to the dark green of Prunus laurocerasus. It is easy to take green for granted but it provides an essential backdrop for the more obvious colourful flowers and indeed it is possible to create a garden based entirely on the varying shades of green.

Jekyll’s gardens had the luxury of space and her long borders were planted to look at their best in one season only and in winter they would be completely bare. Today’s modern gardens are much smaller and are expected to provide interest almost all year round. Care needs to be taken to ensure there is colour in some form throughout the seasons and this is where the colour green comes into it’s own. Evergreen plants are invaluable at providing shape, form and colour and hold the garden together at its quietest time. Dark foliage provides a backdrop for light or bright colours, not only flowers but other brighter evergreens: for example Euonymus fortuneii ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ planted in front of Viburnum tinus makes a great contrast. Design clients often ask not only for low maintenance but also interest throughout the year. If evergreen plants are used to fulfil this brief then it can be useful to the client to see these in colour on the planting plan as it is easier to visualise the proportion of colour they will see in the winter months.

We love colour in our gardens, whether it is provided by flowers, foliage or more permanent features. Soft blues and pinks are calming and vibrant reds and oranges are stimulating. The choice of colour can change the mood of the garden and those that view it. Designing with colour needs thought and consideration but is one of the most exciting aspects of garden design.

© Sharon Brown 18th March 2008

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