A Few Thoughts About Color

 

red-nicotiana.jpg

Given that there are 3 primary colors, and three secondary colors, and infinite possible combinations and permutations of those 6 colors, makes the topic of color a big one.  Have you ever tried to pick a color for a room from 10,00 paint chips?  I will admit I buy a lot of quarts to try before I commit to gallons of a color.  Understanding and working with color is hard.  Annual and tropical plants provide a level and longevity of color I do not get from my trees, shrubs and perennials.  It could very well be that the reason that I so love container plantings is that they enable me to explore the element of color-over and over again. The relationship of one color to another, or a color scheme, is of interest to me as a garden designer.  Planting annuals is the best way to try a color scheme on-before you commit to it in the landscape.  Explaining why certain color combinations are attractive, interesting is not so easy.  Pictures make things easier.  This dark red nicotiana pops when it is paired with a contrasting color, and when it is placed so the light shines through the petals.  This scheme-electrically charged by the rays of the sun.

phlox-and-violas.jpgExplaining why certain color combinations work, and why some schemes are attractive and interesting to my eye-not so easy.  My approach to color is very personal and intuitive.  I am just like every other gardener.  Some schemes seem right-others seem off putting.  But there are some observations I can make about color that might abet your choices.  This picture makes it clear that pale colors appear to come forward, while dark colors appear to recede.  The idea here?  If I have a mind to plant dark colored flowers, I plant pale colored flowers behind them.  A light background helps a dark color to read.

yellow-orange-and-white.jpgHot colors-as in red, yellow, orange, and hot pink, light up a shadier spot.  Fancy leaved geraniums contribute to a color composition via their leaves.  The Skies of Italy geranium has leaves of red, burgundy, green and yellow.  The color of the leaves of this geranium can help knit a color composition together.

farfugium.jpgShiny green is a very different green than matte green. The surface of a color can influence how that color reads.  A dining room painted in red high gloss lacquer is a much different dining room than one painted in matte wine red paint.  Color provokes emotional and associative reactions.  The reaction that matters?  yours.  Look at  a lot of color combinations before you commit.  This makes good design sense. Emerald green is a combination of yellow and blue,  fairly evenly matched.  How does this emerald green look with the colors of the flowers you have chosen?  Choose your greens!

red-and-yellow.jpgRed can be dark and moody in the garden.  It can be royally rich-when paired with yellow.  Pale yellow with dark red is not quite the brass band that fire engine red and gold yellow makes.  Pasiring red and yellow has many possible interpretations.  A variation on a traditional color theme can be very striking.  My advice-if you are developing a color scheme, pick 3 colors.  Two colors is a story with not enough detail.  The third color facilitates the relationship between the first two.

a-shade-of-white.jpgHow many shades of white are there?  White white.  cream white.  blue white. rosy white.  Greenish white.  Even an all white color scheme asks for some attention to be paid to the particular shade of white that works.  Some white flowers have yellow centers.  This would suggest that a yellow green foliage would compliment that shade of white.  Blue-white flowers, such as this silverberry petunia-yellow flowers would contrast.  Dark purple flowers would harmonize.

millet-jester.jpgHarmonious colors tend to be quieter.  More serene.  Contrasting colors provide visual excitement.  Lime green foliage always looks fresh and spring like.  Red with lime-very pleasing.  Lime with white-fresh.  Lime and orange-provocative.  Lime and purple-don’t you like this?  Lime green in the sun?  oo la la.  Lime green in the shade-the lights are on in this garden.  Lime green and pink-so Coco Chanel or Lily Pulitzer.  Pale lime and pale pink-fragile, ephemeral-breathtaking.  Wildly lime-a light fantastic version of green.

the-blues.jpgI will admit I like planting containers with plants all of the same tone and color.  The exploration of a single color in a lot of different plants makes a strong visual statement.  It focuses the eye on texture-another important design element.   If you are a big fan of texture, stay steady as you go with the color.  Contrast the texture.

pink.jpgAre you a fan of pink?  Which pink?   Carmine pink.  blue pink.  coral pink?  pale pink?  Dark carmine pink?  Blue pink?  Not all pink flowers harmonize.  If you are hoping to stir things up, plant a variety of pinks, and let the chips fall where they may. More interested in a strong and harmonious statement about a blue pink-you eye will tell you when a yellow based pink is gumming up the works.  Put lots of plants in your cart.  Put back those plant whose flowers threaten to dilute your idea.  As for right and wrong-that applies only to moral questions.  This is gardening.  Enjoy it.  Just take the time to sort through the color relationships.

coral charm peonyI have had this photograph of a Coral Charm peony on my computer for a long time-I do not know the photographer. If this is your photograph, please write me. I am posting it, as the color of this peony is so striking and unique, that it surely would inspire a color scheme-a spring color scheme-that would pay tribute to such an extraordinary color.

light-and-dark.jpgLight and dark colors-the contrast is lively.

related-colors.jpgPale pinks with blue green foliage-a great scheme for semi shady places.

carmine.jpgThe carmine pink of this cosmos flower is all the more visually dramatic-given the yellow center, and the burgundy red corolla.  The contrast of the yellow and red center makes that carmine pink shine.

orange.jpgOn the left in this picture-an orange begonia heavy on the yellow.  On the right, an orange tipping towards blue.  There is orange.  There is another version of orange.

bok-choy.jpgThe blue green foliage of the bok choy clearly compliments the color of the blue violas..  The addition of white makes the scheme all the more crisp and fresh.  Cool and clean-this scheme.

purple.jpgLavender and purple-you have choices.  The sun will make its own statement about your choices.  Light and dark purple both colors can be the star of the show.  Both colors can be a supporting cast that makes your central idea shine.  Purple is a color that fits into a lot of different color schemes.

sunny-yellow.jpg

Sunny yellow-there is nothing quite like it.  Yellow is the color of the light that every garden thrives in.  Have a place for something yellow?  I recommend this level of garden cheer.  Your idea bout color is a good idea.  Another good idea-follow through on your sense of color.  Make the colors work just the way you want them to.

The Super Nova Stage

In 1996, I had a shop devoted to fine and fabulous objects for the garden- newly opened for business.  Of course I had lots of ideas, not the least of which was a scheme for a landscape out front. Gravel paths, and a slew of buxus koreana from Canada.  Marv Wiegand gave me 6 months to pay for these boxwood-this was a huge help to a business just underway.  This 1997 view of the shop-the word gawky comes to mind.   

This past week tells a different, more recent story about the shop garden.  The years of work show.  Time is a enormously important design element in the landscape.  You may be able to cut in line other places , but any landscape needs some age to represent well.  Some new landscapes may be charming and bright at first-this is a super nova stage.  But how they look fifteen years later tells the design tale.  Great landscapes are about the long vision, and faithful maintenance.         

 Unlike a landscape, annual pots are a celebration of a single season.  They start with small plants that take hold slowly-the spring weather in Michigan can be cold and unfriendly to plants native to tropical climates.  It seems as though every plant is the same size, no matter whether it will eventually stay small, or grow 6 feet tall.  New plantings are almost always out of scale with the container. 

This same pot in late September is just about as good as it will get.  The fall equinox-tomorrow.  Cold nights will have an adverse effect on the coleus and sweet potato vine.  But just before the cold weather begins to bring the annual season to a close, the plants seem to take on a robust appearance.  Perhaps the cooler weather, or the sun lower in the sky, makes the color appear more saturated.  

In any event, the annual season is brief and sweet. It takes no time at all to find out whether an experiment in color and form is satisfying-or not.  Better yet, there is a new season ahead-for those containers that need a better idea.

This is my best effort ever in these two small pots.  It took years to figure out one simple thing.  Large growing plants do not prosper in smaller pots.  Plants that mature at a size proportional to the size of the container put on the best show. 

I am always pushing that size restriction with these two urns.  One year I grew nicotiana mutabilis in them-hilarious, the outcome. Last year’s coleus-much too big a grower for the volume of soil in this pot. 

Today the plantings are as lush as they will ever be.  That lush look compliments the urns without overpowering them. The succulent in the front never grew large enough to obscure that Italian goat face.   

This Tuscan square was vastly larger than its plantings in June.  The steel plant climber that keeps the red mandevillea aloft is a major feature.

Yesterday, the lemon grass was every bit of 7 feet wide-all this from 4 4″ pots planted the first week of June.  I have taken lots of pictures of all of my pots this summer-I like keeping a record of how they do.  But I will not photograph this one again.  This is as good as it gets. 

3 6″ pots of swallowtail coleus were planted in this pot.  It’s a bushel basket full of green and yellow highly textured leaves today.

This pot might be my favorite of the year.  The plectranthus is falling over from the weight of its branches.  The variegated miscanthus grass in the center is emerging in a way I never anticipated.  The community which resulted from my planting is courtesy of mother nature. 

I am very much enjoying this moment.

Good Grooming

annual planting design

Successful container planting depends as much on the maintenance as it does on the design.  Though I do have clients that never touch their containers once they are planted, I find that gardeners who look after their containers enjoy them more, and enjoy them longer.  If you have kept up with the need for water, this extraordinarily hot summer has been a dream come true for annual plants.  Many of them are native to hot, tropical climates.  They luxuriate in the heat.  Every plant is on top of, and competing for a dominant position with its neighbor.   

container planting design

Plants compete with other plants.  Given that there is only so much light, and so much water, any garden in its simplest definition is the story of that competition.  In these urns of my own, every day the potato vine threatens to engulf the silver dichondra.  It is up to me to level the playing field.  I remove those leaves that shade or otherwise interfere with the well being of the dichondra.  I signed up for this job, as I planted two vines whose habit and vigor are very different. 

white caladiums

This window box that I planted for a client requires little in the way of intervention.  The caladiums produce lots of leaves, but the impatiens have found a way to work theimselves to the forefront.  They coexist-peaceably.

container planting design

This container features plants that harmonize without much intervention.  The nicotiana are tall-and above the fray.  The petunias are very good eggs that tolerate the pestering from the stems of the lime licorice.  The Diamond Frost euphorbia is just now making a break for it.

annual companion planting

The pots in front of the shop this year-the relationships are complicated.  The mandevillea is a big growing vine with big paddle shaped leaves that produce shade.  The petunias just grow, and expect the best from their neighbors.  The euphorbia is delicate, but persistent.  The plectranthus-a big leaved thug that would smother anything in its path. 

annual plants

I planted mandevillea, as it vines luxuriantly, and grows very tall.  A month ago, I started removing the leaves at the ground level-they were shading the plants on the ground plane.  The petunias are willing and able to perform, providing they get great light, and food.  They are heavy feeders. Should you want great performance from your petunias, feed them regularly.  Grow them on the dry side.  Trim the straggly ends-routinely. 


Diamond Frost euphorbia is pitiful in early spring.  That anyone buys and plants it amazes me.  I plant it, as I believe in what it can do in the home stretch.  It needs an extended period of heat to come on.  Once those slender stems and airy flowers get going, they add add an unequalled wispy volume to a container planting.     

variegated plectranthus

Plectranthus is a thug.  It features long thick stems, and large leaves.  It would smother anything in its path-given the chance.  Why plant it?  Few plants are better at creating and sustaining great volume and mass.  The tall pots in the front of the shop have a very small planting area.  They ask for something that grows wide.  Plectranthus will grow every which way, including wide.  How do I manage it? Like the mandevillea, I remove those leaves that threaten to smother all of the other plants.  Some of my plectranthus are bare stems, until they go over the edge of the pot.      

It is my job to make room for the euphorbia.  Though the stems and blooms are ever so slight, they have a big will to live.  I just do what I can to help their natural  process along.  This work means my late September containers will have something good to say.  Container plantings?  With care, they will prosper late into the fall.

 euphorbia diamond frost

Every plant you plant-no matter if it is shrub or a tree or a perennial or an annual-they have habits.  Every living thing has habits.  A collection of plants that you intend to represent a garden rely upon you to sort out the real relationships.  Be in charge.  A garden with a thoughtful gardener in charge?  I respect this.

The Caliente Geraniums

tree ferns

I am sure you can tell from the dearth of posts this week that I am in the thick of the spring planting season. Every year at this time I have the opportunity to experience in fresh detail the meaning of the word seasonal. Though I have a number of landscape projects underway, and the shop is incredibly busy, I make time to plant summer annuals for clients. These tree ferns which have belonged to my clients for years come under the heading of annual flowers, as we have to winter them indoors in an unheated space. They are a very unusual and unlikely summer annual-I like this about them. The wild lime coleus planted underneath, and the begonias in the chimney pots will have much more to say in 6 weeks than they do now.

waxleaf privet topiaries

We have wintered this pair of waxleaf privets for the past 10 years. I think this is the last year for them-in these pots. I love how overscaled the tops are as opposed to the green glazed bottoms, but I have root pruned them for the last time. I dare not go one bit further with that. We were barely able to get the lavender scaevola and lime licorice skirt in the pot. I advised my client that she either needed bigger pots, or new topiaries. Somehow I doubt she will give up the privet standards.

growing herbs in containers

The largest of the two second floor decks has a number of containers which we plant with herbs. What herbs? Lots of sweet Genovese basil, lemon basil, several kinds of variegated culinary thyme, gold marjoram, garlic chives, oregano, and both flat and curly parsley. These are her favorites. At the corners of the big pots-strawberries. They do not bear for long, but the leaves and trailers are beautiful in herb pots. One pot not seen in this picture is entirely taken up with an old rosemary. Just for punctuation-some flashlights millet. They will take a while to grow on.

cedar planter boxes

That old wild rosemary is visible in the top left of this picture. We store this plant over the winter; the storage is worth the trouble. The big planter box, which separates the deck from the walkway that traverses the entire rear of the house, gets flowers. As I had a request for lots of color, the box is planted with red and dark red violet dahlias. The cool color of variegated licorice and lavender star verbena makes all that color seem all the more saturated. As I like my mixed colors in threes, the border also includes Caliente Dark Red geraniums.

planting containers with annuals

Several years ago, at the Independent Garden Centers convention and trade show in Chicago, I heard Alan Armitage speak. He trials bedding plants at a garden at the University of Georgia in Athens. There were lots of plants he had issues with-as in poor color, substance or performance. But he was highly complimentary of the Caliente geraniums. If he liked them, I was sure that I would too. Interestingly enough, he recommended that gardeners in southern states plant them with afternoon shade.  I wondered if they would tolerate a little bit of shade that marks the locations of these boxes.

caliente geraniums

I asked my grower to grow 10 cases of each color for me last year. I planted lots of the orange variety in my roof boxes. They bloomed non-stop in that very hot and very windy location. They were virtually self-cleaning. That vivid color was readily visible from the street. Caliente geraniums are a cross between an ivy geranium, and the mop headed zonal geranium. They are vigorous growers; the colors are clear and intense. The flower heads are loose, like a typical ivy geranium.

annual planting patterns

Years ago we built 2 very long boxes that are attached to the outside of the†railing of the walkway. This means the boxes drain to the terrace below, not onto the deck walk. This year I planted caliente geraniums in dark red, coral, orange and pink. The flower heads are much more informal than those of zonal geraniums, but I wanted an even looser look. I planted diamond frost euphorbia between each geranium. The edges of the box are planted with white and lavender star verbena, variegated licorice, misty lilac wave petunias and creeping jenny.

English lead boxes

The landing of the staircase that goes to the ground floor has a pair of English lead pots. A pair of Daniella are ringed in pink and red solenia begonias. They will easily handle the part sun conditions of this terrace. The lime green variegated leaves will have some company from the creeping jenny in the boxes above, once it grows in and starts to trail.

lead planter boxes

So many places I plant have pairs of pots in different light conditions. I try to pick plants that are the tolerant sort. These plants will grow in a fairly uniform manner, though one box gets noticeably more sun than the other.

second story decks

The small terrace at the far end of the house is off the master bedroom. An old varigated abutilon with peach flowers in the pot on the left came out of winter storage. A red mandevillea is paired with a new petunia variety whose petals are splashed with pink and lime yellow. The center pot is stuffed with a dahlia favorite-Hypnotica lavender. This dahlia is about the strongest performing dahlia I have ever grown. The right hand pot features an Orange Punch canna, accompanied by lime nicotiana.

kidney shaped swimming pools

On the ground floor, a swimming pool is encircled by roses, perennials, small growing shrubs, and old viburnums. We added verbena bonariensis, sonata white and Rosalita cleome, lime nicotiana, heliotrope, and surfinia sky blue petunias. They are steadfast in delivering color all summer long, while the perennials come and go. Will I come back later in the summer to take pictures? Of course.