Sequencing plants in gradations of color, or repeating shades in "color echoes," has long been considered the height of garden artistry.
Color is a great mystery. I know it can be explained in terms of rods and cones and light. But just like I never believed the debunked theory that dogs were color blind, I also don’t believe that the magic and nuances of color can be quantified by any scientific explanation.
How do colors change so with the light and in relation to other colors, and why does each of us see colors so very differently? How to explain our emotional reaction to certain shades? I’m always amazed when someone declares “I’m not a pink person” — as if pink is a single, harsh Pepto-Bismol color rather than myriad shadings from the softest shell pink through screaming magenta.
Maybe recalling a shade of aqua or brick red doesn’t cause major argument in your family, but my daughter and I have been known to discuss past and future paint colors for weeks and months. It’s a delightful, continuing conversation between us, but nothing compared to the musings in my own head over colors in the garden.
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Sequencing plants in gradations of color, or repeating shades in “color echoes,” has long been considered the height of garden artistry. However, most of us don’t have lengthy herbaceous borders flanking expanses of lawn where such techniques can be put to best effect.
Urban gardens, decks, balconies, raised beds and narrow borders are the gardening realities for many of us these days. We grow vegetables and fruits in with our ornamentals, and just don’t have all those ideal “color echo” perennials to play around with. We need maximum color impact per square inch, best achieved by limiting the color palette to two contrasting colors.
Which brings me to purple and gold. Oh, I don’t like to think of it that way, because it brings to mind fans in paw-print pants barking at Husky games. Purple and gold seem too obvious, too 1980s. But no other pairing of colors can so set a small garden, or even a pot, vibrating with color. Then all the glorious shades of green can be used as harmonizer between the two extremes of dark and light, bright and deep.
Yellow/gold sits right at the center of the spectrum of light visible to the human eye. It reflects more light than any of the other colors, which is an especially valuable trait on overcast days. Plant enough golden yellow and it’ll look like the sun is sending more than your share of rays down into your garden. Purple is a richly royal color, a combination of black, red and blue. Whether you call it plum, burgundy, maroon, chocolate, mulberry, oxblood or claret, it strikes a dramatically opulent note. It’s easy to keep these dark shades from looking gloomy when you pair them with the warmth of gold, yellow or orange.
So here’s the trick: Don’t think of typical harvest gold or plum purple. Conjure up the shades you love most. Gold can be interpreted as soft butter yellow, apricot or even terra-cotta. Purple obligingly shades from mauve through grapy blue. The point is to choose shades for maximum contrast and — this is the hard part — to stick to them. You might fall for a butterscotch-colored rose and make that the centerpiece of your paler color scheme, then choose every deep-chocolate and purple-colored foliage plant you can find for the dark notes. Play off those colors in your vegetable garden with the golden shades of ruby chard planted near bull’s blood beets, or sunny nasturtiums consorting with purple cabbages.
To quote modern master colorist Nori Pope, “People talk about toning color down; I tell them I want it to go right off the scale.” There’s no better way to sail your own garden right off the color scale than to infuse it with the contrast of purple and gold.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.