Our sense of color is fickle, and that’s especially true in our gardens, which are always changing.
OUR SENSE OF color is fickle, as changeable as our perception of garden color when it rains, or when a cloud passes beneath the sun. If you visited the Seattle Art Museum’s recent Yves Saint Laurent fashion exhibit, and walked through the hallway with thousands of fabric swatches arranged in cascading shades from deep umber to brightest pink, you probably experienced color as visceral, intense, engaging.
Such a bravado show of color stirs up memories and emotions. So do the many tints and shades in a garden, but unlike a museum exhibit, gardens aren’t static. Gardeners are always messing about with color, creating and rearranging combinations of leaf and flower. But this color play is nothing compared to nature’s contribution to the garden scene. Plants morph in color, texture, shape and size through the seasons. Then there’s fog, rain, sun, mist, frost, dawn light and moonlight, all of which change how we perceive color by the minute, hour and day, as well as the time of year.
So how, with all this flux and possibility, do gardeners develop such inexplicable yet stubborn color prejudices? Years ago, it seemed that everyone scorned orange. Then hot colors replaced pastels in our affections. Remember when the pairing of dusty pink with silver foliage was cool? After seeing so many gardens seared by the dramatic combo of black and chartreuse, the pairing of pink chrysanthemums with dusty miller seems pallid and kind of quaint. Gardeners tell me they adore violet, anything violet, but would never let a white flower in their garden. Go figure.
Flowers and foliage in new colors are introduced every year, and our tastes change. Who would have thought that ebony flowers, the darker the better, would be so prized? Right now, varying shades of green on green look fresh. It’s all about color, or lack of color, or the color on the underside of the leaves, or … well, you get the idea.
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Strolling through lots of public and private gardens, looking closely, noting combinations of flowers and foliage that appeal to you, is a good way to get shaken out of color complacency. So is flower arranging. It’s so much easier to play around with color in the vase than in the ground: no transplanting involved. Varying textures and shapes allow for unexpected harmonies, as with hot-pink dahlias paired with spikes of mint-scented orange agastache. You learn that glossy, deep-green leaves of camellia or magnolia help referee the most vivid colors. Grow foliage in every shade from plum to silver, and you’ll be able to mellow out any combination of flowers.
A passionate comment by glass artist Ginny Ruffner was most influential in broadening my sense of color. Years ago, I was interviewing the Ballard resident about her stunning garden. I made the mistake of asking her favorite color, and she nearly exploded in defense of every shade and tone. Ruffner said she loved them all and could no more choose between one color and another than she could choose between her own fingers.
How freeing. After all, we have a virtually unlimited color palette, plus every shade of green, to work with. All you need do is follow your eye, your memories and your heart as you play with color. You might as well have fun with it, because it takes only a hungry deer or a big windstorm to change the most carefully orchestrated color scheme. And then you get to start over.