It took a Brit to show us that, when it comes to color, a broader bandwidth energizes the garden while inspiring the gardener. It was nothing short of revolutionary when Christopher Lloyd dug up his mother's rose garden and replaced it with dahlias and canna lilies in colors as hot as they come.
MASSING PASTELS to create a dreamy, Monet-like effect was, for what seems like decades, the height of garden artistry. We may deny it now, but most of us delighted in stuffing containers full of sky-blue lobelia, pink petunias and yellow marigolds.
Influenced by an English sensibility, we gardened under the delusion that pale, Easter-washed hues suited our gray, drizzly weather. Bright and obvious colors were for the tropics or the desert, where they could stand up to the sunshine. Remember that reasoning? Orange was the most hated color in gardening (“so obvious!”) and flat, candy-striper pink was as gaudy as it got. The closest we came to red was in rhododendrons and roses.
It took a Brit to show us that, when it comes to color, a broader bandwidth energizes the garden while inspiring the gardener. It was nothing short of revolutionary when Christopher Lloyd dug up his mother’s rose garden and replaced it with dahlias and canna lilies in colors as hot as they come. Our sensibilities were shocked into an appreciation of how saturated color warms up the garden. All of a sudden we were eager to push color into brighter, hotter realms.
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It may have started with Lloyd’s exotic garden at Great Dixter, but soon enough Northwest gardeners were worshipping vibrant orange ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias (I still remember when I saw these hotties for the first time in Steve Antonow’s West Seattle garden). We stopped disparaging variegated foliage and realized how striped, splashed and spotted leaves lend dimensionality while lighting up shady corners.
None of this probably strikes you as news, but what has changed recently is the dazzling assortment of sizzling colors we have to choose from. I’m not sure if our eyes or the nursery industry changed first, but it hardly matters. We now enjoy a buffet of hues from deepest maroon to frothiest apricot.
Even the color gurus at Pantone, who usually choose a safe blue or green as color of the year, declared Tangerine Tango as tops for 2012. This is sure to mean we’ll see more of this mood-elevating citrus shade in future flowers.
But how to use brilliant color pops most effectively? I turned to the source at Great Dixter, head gardener Fergus Garrett. “People shouldn’t be worried about using these strong colours as there is plenty of green in the garden,” Garrett wrote in an email. “Use of these colours gives an injection of joie de vivre. And people should be free to do what they want — whether by restricting their colour palate to a few harmonizing tones or through throwing the kitchen sink at it. No rules.”
Sounds good, but the reality can be jarring. It’s a challenge to marry variegated foliage with vivid flower colors in a pleasing way.
I turned next to a local duo known for their color artistry. Charles Price and Glenn Withey both grew up in the Seattle area and know how to work with our lack of light and the deep shadows that native conifers cast. “We need all the chartreuse we can get,” says Price, who advises using plenty of bright foliage plants like Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey,’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’) and the golden dwarf grass Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon.’
How to orchestrate bold color contrasts? “If you use gradations of color ranging from almost pink to almost orange, say melon, coral and salmon, you raise the whole composition to another level,” says Withey. To prevent a “thumb-in-the-eye effect,” Price suggests repeating vivid colors. It rests the eye to echo the pop of a sunny golden locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) by planting yellow hostas or a golden smoke bush nearby.
“Just play and enjoy your garden,” advises Price. “In a cool climate like ours, pastels and white flowers are br-r-r-r . . . We need the visual heat of bright orange and hot pink.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.