COLOR IS ABOUT seduction. It is both delightful and one of nature’s most sophisticated tools, designed to capture the attention of all living creatures. Along with pollinators searching for pollen and nectar, and hungry animals foraging for ripe berries, we humans are under the spell of color.
In the spring of 2018, shortly after the death of my father, I began creating color studies of plants in my garden. Far from any sort of botanical illustration, this was a daily exercise, a doodle really, and a much-needed distraction from heartbreak. The garden is my canvas, and color is my muse. I guess you could say I’m a horticolorist.
My little West Seattle garden is saturated with color. Orange and rusty brown appear again and again throughout the year, beginning in spring, when chocolaty ‘James Wild’ tulips poke through the lemon-lime-orange new growth on Spirea japonica ‘Magic Carpet’. A few weeks later, a strong stomach is required when the foliage ripens to chartreuse, and bright-pink blooms cloak the small shrub. It’s not for everyone, but ‘Magic Carpet’ makes my color-loving heart sing.
There’s a delightful feedback loop to identifying color. The more we look, the more we see.
Typically, a color is defined — by its color: a generally accepted, if somewhat-circular, logic lacking scientific rigor, imagination and romance, in my humble opinion. But when color, memory and association collide, our fluency with color improves.
What’s more, naming colors puts us into a conversation with others. If you say “orange,” we both probably picture an orange-orange. But if you say “peach,” “apricot,” “tangerine” or “pumpkin,” suddenly, you’ve helped me “see” various expressions of what is still basically orange. I never tire of this word game that, along with my color studies, deepens my appreciation for the generous multiplicity of hues in my planting beds.
Shortly after the tulips, the root beer- and bronze-colored blooms of Pacific Coast Hybrid irises arrive in my garden, along with Helianthemum ‘Cheviot’, a tough evergreen ground cover smothered with apricot tissue-paper blossoms in late spring and early summer. Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, a nonstop bloomer, carries the theme through the growing season.
Repeating a color or variations on a hue helps lead your eye throughout a landscape, making even a small space appear larger, and establishes a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) harmony among plantings.
Recording colors in and beyond my garden encourages me to slow down and pay attention. Now, several years later, what began as a simple exercise has become essential, a meditative practice that quiets my mind even on days when my clumsy attempts fail to produce what nature does so elegantly.
My garden is a beautiful distraction that taught me how to cultivate a daily practice. Along with joyous highs and days of celebration, these past several years have held plenty of hard, noisy and broken parts. To do something — anything, really — on a daily basis is to court tedium. Sometimes, all I can do is ride out the doldrums and watch for the next lifting wave of wonder and awe. It always arrives. My practice is the walk between this day and that.