Colour

14. February 2021 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
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Farbe: Rot - Hemerocallis 'Crimson Pirate' © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzungauf Deutsch lesen – Our landscape has been reduced to the colour of black and white for the first time in many years. The regular top up of snow ensures that any muddy traces of activity are erased overnight and everything looks pristine again by morning. The snow blanket conveniently hides imperfections, it hides the problem areas of your garden, yet it enhances contours and shapes whilst muffling the world.

The satisfying crunch underfoot as you walk through crisp fresh snow is delicious. Though this pleasure soon leaves me on treacherous, icy footpaths. I worry also about the well-being of many plants which do not like these low temperatures. A short cold spell is one thing, a prolonged period of hard frost can cause serious damage and possible loss. 

Farben: Schwarz-weiss © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Black & White

Coming this late in winter (which according to the meteorologists ends in two weeks, if you go by the solstice, you must wait another 5 weeks) I feel cheated. Just at the point where things started happening in the garden, the show has been cancelled. Postponed. For how long? Too long to my liking, I worry spring will happen in a rush again as suddenly the temperatures shoot up and plants rush into growth.

Not only do I feel deprived of signs of life in my garden, I am hungry for colour. Any colour. All colours! I love them all. I find there is a place for each colour in the garden and consider myself fortunate to be able to create so many different combinations and permutations in all my planting schemes for other people. In my own shady garden, the colourgreen is the dominant one, as I have many great foliage plants such as Rodgersia, ferns, Hostas, Ariseama, Aruncus and Thalictrum. Most also bear flowers at some stage in the season, but I consider these as a bonus. For shade the colours tend to be soft. There is a lot of white, but also creamy yellows, soft pinks, pale blues and lilacs. I have come to really like the whites in my garden. They are more visible, and it brings peace, which I find increadibly valuable in this little green oasis, surrounded by so many neighbours, in the middle of a busy city.

Colour – White

Farbe: Weiß - Astrantia 'Shaggy' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
white – Astrantia ‘Shaggy’

White is a colour which is extremely popular. Only once have I had a client who specifically requested not to have any white flowers in his garden. There are many who only want white. . Sissinghurst’s famous white garden has given rise to many copies, few as successful as the original. Often white gardens appear bland and lack contrast. There is more to it than just putting together plants with a white flower. The art is to look out different shades of white and combine them with different shades of green. There is pure white, but there are also creamy whites, blue-ish or pinkish whites, or even greenish whites. As for foliage, there is the rich dark green of roses and peonies, silver artemisias, grey lambs ears, glaucous green of Irises and Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’ and pale green of aquilegias and violets.

White is easy as there is a huge range of plants to choose from: of nearly every plant there is a genetically recessive white variant. 

Colour – Blue

Farbe: Blau - Salvia uliginosa © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Salvia uliginosa

Everybody loves blue, everybody wants blue. The problem with blue, is that there are very few flowers that really are blue, and those that are, are difficult. The number one diva in the garden world is Delphinium. If happy, they will put up a sensational flower display. In reality, they sulk in about 95% of gardens. The elusive blue Himalayan poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia, combines the best of both worlds. The typical open poppy-shaped flower with petals made of the most delicate silky texture, carries a big boss of orange stamens in the middle in a clear sky blue. Perfection! It hates our climate, loves it in the north of Scotland and Scandinavia, where a winterly snow-blanket keeps the winter wet off, and summers are cool and moist. Then there are the Gentians. These too are fussy candidates I got to know in my student days in the alpine yards of Kew and Wisley, and later in Jack Drake’s nursery in the north of Scotland. I proudly planted Gentiana asclepiadea in my first garden. It sat there till my return from a holiday by the Tegernsee, where I discovered wild stands of this stunning Gentian on the Wallberg and saw what they should / could look like. Upon my return to England I dug up my poor, sad-looking plant and put it on the compost heap.

In the bearded irises there are some good blues, and there are a few salvias, though most of the true-blues are not really hardy. Salvia uliginosa may just manage for those of you gardening in milder areas. I have just discovered Salvia azurea from till Hoffmann, which I will be trying out. All the other blues, are not really blue and can clash badly with true blues as they have varying amounts of red mixed into them, giving them a lilac-purple hue.

Yellow

Gelb - Digitalis grandiflora © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Yellow – Digitalis grandiflora

The most unpopular colour of all. Why? I do not know. So often I am asked to do a planting plan, but please no yellows. In some cases, I can convince the client to allow creamy colours, or the greenish yellows of Euphorbias and Ladies’ Mantle, but for some, even those are too much. I can only imagine that it comes from a yellow overdose in late summer. Towards the end of July, into September there are a huge number of yellow-flowered compositae. Rudbeckia, Helenium, Helianthus, Correopsis to name but a few. Most of these have rich, warm buttery yellow colours that fit the hot summer days where the sky shimmers with heat. If not carefully proportioned, it is easy to become an overdose of these yellows. I always think of it as being served a huge piece of a very rich and sweet chocolate cake. After the second spoonful the body strikes. It is a pity when people ban the colour from their garden, as it is an important one. On sunny days maybe less so, but on grey, dreary days a touch of yellow brings sunshine in the garden and lights it up.

It must not be much, nor must it be a rich, warm yellow, but it should be included. Look out for lemony, acid yellows such as Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Correopsis ‘Moonbeam’ and Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, and of course the wonderful chartreuse greenish yellows of Euphorbias and Alchemilla – these can be used to accompany any colour with great success.  

Orange

Farbe: Orange - Rhododendron lut. 'Glowing Embers' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Orange – Rhododendron lut. ‘Glowing Embers’

Like with blue, orange is a colour which does not occur all that often in our palette of hardy flowers. For each season there a few orange blooms, but not enough to make a theme of it. Tulips, azaleas, Geum, roses, a few poppies, Crocosmia, Helenium and Chrysanthemum, though the latter two are usually more of a burnt coppery colour rather than a clear, clean orange. 

If you decide to plant a border in hot colours, it is important to include orange tones.  They provide a harmonizing connection between the otherwise very dominant yellows and reds.

Red

Farben: Rot - Papaver 'Beauty of Livermere' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Colour red – Papaver ‘Beauty of Livermere’

No colour is more powerful than red. The colour of blood, the colour of love. Red roses are bought as a symbol of love, not only for Valentine’s day. Yet many shy away from the colour when it comes to their garden. I have always loved red and have very fond memories from my childhood garden reds. The by now rarely seen floribunda rose ‘Cappa Magna’ would flower profusely despite very poor soil and regular deer attacks and of course the gorgeous red poppies (subtle wild field poppies as well as the big, loud oriental ones). But I admit to having been a great colour snob when I first started doing planting plans over 30 years ago. I loved making cool colour schemes, blues, mauves, pinks. Until visiting Hidcote on a dreary, rainy summers’ day. The Red Border, which on my first visit a few weeks earlier I barely registered, sang and danced and brought the whole soggy garden to life. I stood there looking at it, filled with joy, putting an end to my colour prejudice for good.

There are warm reds and cool reds, depending on which side of the spectrum they sit. The warmer tones veer towards yellow, and blend in well with oranges. If it goes in the direction of blue, its effect is cool and combines well with purples. Especially during the summer months, I love the warm coppery velvety shades of the numerous Heleniums, but also fierier Crocosmia. These add great structure.  

Pink

Rosa - Deutzia hyb. 'Mont Rose' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Pink – Deutzia hyb. ‘Mont Rose’

Soft, powdery, or strong and vibrant? Few colours can have such a different effect, depending on which one you use. I enjoy creating little electric chocs in the garden by combining strong magenta pinks, such as Erodium manescavii with the sharp, lemony acid yellow of Achillea ‘Moonshine’. I also enjoy using these strong colours to pep up a scheme.

Combined with deep purples, and velvety reds, you can create an intense Persian carpet effect. Combine pale pinks with whites and pale lilacs to have a soft, refreshing scheme that will cool you down on hot summers days. I find pinks sometimes difficult to combine amongst each other. Some are warm, with an underlying touch of orange, others have a blueish undertone. Personally, I find they do not work together at all.

Lilac

Farben: Flieder - Wisteria sinensis japanese form © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Lilac – Wisteria sinensis japanese form

This colour takes its name from the very popular flowering shrub and describes it perfectly. I love the scent, enjoy them when they flower in parks and neighbours’ gardens in early summer. They signal the start of the nightingale season in Berlin. I admit to never planting on in my own garden: their flowering season is short, and the rest of the year it is a very boring shrub, and usually you can find some in your vicinity to enjoy!

The colour is useful as it is a gentle one, bringing together pink and blue. It is soft and gentle, mixing well into cool colour combinations with pinks, whites as well as creamy yellows. They are also useful to lighten up darker colour schemes.

Purple – Violet

Farbe: Lila - Aster novae-angliae 'Violetta' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Purple – Aster novae-angliae ‘Violetta’

Richer and more intense than lilacs, I love using them to add a moody intensity to schemes. Salvias are one of my absolute favourites, especially S. ‘Caradonna’ as in this cultivar the colour already appears in the flower stem. There are also some Campanulas, lupins, Delphiniums, Vernonia crinita and asters, such as A. ‘Violetta’ bring a wonderful intensity to a border. These dark moody shades, combined with rich velvety reds and a few magenta pinks, can cause quite a stir.  

Green

I rarely think of green in terms of a flower colour. The foliage matters. No plant will deliver a continuous show of flowers throughout the season. Most will flower for four to six weeks. The remainder of the season we rely on a plant’s foliage. Pale greens, yellowish greens, greys, silvers, dark greens; yellows and reds; with white, silver, cream, or yellow variegation; even with pink.  Handsome bold leaves, like those of hostas, create peaceful landing platforms for the restless eye in different shades of green.

But for the There are few green flowers. As annuals you can buy Amaranth, Nicotiana langsdorfii, Bells of Ireland (Molucella) and Zinnia ‘Envy’.  For the garden there is an unusual rose R. viridiflora, intriguing Ariseama and of course Helleborus foetidus and some H. orientalis forms. Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ starts of green, fading to white as flowers mature.  Florists often offer green chrysanthemums, carnations, and gladioli. Green is probably the last colour on anybody’s agenda, but it really is the most important one!

Nori and Sandra Pope at Hadspen

I cannot talk about individual colours, without mention two people who inspired many gardeners with their colour artistry and taught me much about colours and how to use them. Nori and Sandra Pope moved from Canada to England in 1986 and spent 20 years crating the most fabulous colour borders at Hadspen in Somerset.

These great colourists used to crunch up petals before comparing them, to see what was the underlying colour of a flower. Then they would match them. Some flower combinations I personally would have never risked, really worked thanks to this technique. Their long border was a gradual evolution from creamy apricots, to orange, to bright red, effortlessly blending into virtual black-red colours. From there it would move into the purple blacks, gradually working its way down the scale into magenta pinks, softer pinks, finishing with salmon. At no point could you see where one colour changed to the next. This scheme was pulled through the entire season, choosing one plant available in many shades to string it all together. For the spring season they used tulips, then oriental poppies and irises, Hemerocallis and roses, in late summer dahlias.  Upon entering the old walled garden, you were confronted by a double yellow border. Thanks to its use of fine, feathery light green fennel foliage, and mixing in lime and cream colours with just a few touches of blue, this retained a lightness throughout the season, seldom seen in such a mixture.

Colour is a very personal affair. It is important you follow your instinct, as you have to live with your garden, feel happy and comfortable in it. So please, do ignore all the good advice and opinions from well-meaning friends and journalists!

Recommended Books

  • Colour by Design; Sandra and Nori Pope, Conran Octopus 1998
  • Gärten in Weiß, Gelb, Rot oder Blau; Sandra and Nori Pope, Callwey Verlag 1999
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