I once read an article on French chic. They said the key to dressing like a French woman was wearing no more than 3 colors at one time; preferably no more than 2. I haven’t met many French women, so I don’t know how strictly they follow this rule, but it’s stuck with me and has actually helped me keep my wardrobe and closet tamed. Would it do the same in my garden?
Although I have favorite color combinations, somehow my borders always take on a color life of their own. That gorgeous purple salvia dies and and a beige daylily becomes the star. And I am truly a victim of impulse buying, at the garden center. I think they see me coming and push whatever they are trying to get rid of up by the counter. Whatever the reason, I often wind up with one of this and one of that… wondering what happened to my well thought out plan.
Let’s face it, it is hard for any of us to deny ourselves the pleasure of cramming our gardens full of whatever strikes our current fancy. It’s easier to see yesterday’s folly in your closet, because you are always pushing the clothes that don’t appeal to you out of the way and pulling the same handful of pieces out over and over again.
In the garden, our mistakes are either glaringly apparent, or we just stop seeing the plants that no longer catch our eye. They live their life unnoticed as we work around them. Seems a waste for both us and the plants. So the first step in conquering color chaos is to take a really good look at the colors in your garden.
Maybe it’s a perfectly nice peach daylily that just doesn’t play well with gold. Or it could just be some nondescript pale pink geraniums that take up space without giving anything back. For me, it’s too much yellow, left over from the days when I wanted a hot colored garden. Coreopsis, rudbeckia, and Lady’s Mantle for starts. That’s where I’m starting my editing.
But that still leaves the question of defining and adhering to a palette, going forward. Back to the clothes analogy, I’ve always found it funny that most of us can get ourselves dressed in the morning and present ourselves in public without agonizing over the colors of our various pieces of clothing. Why is garden design so much harder?
Admittedly, I don’t wear all of my clothes at once, whereas all of my plants coexist in one big garden. Color cohesion is harder to accomplish in a garden, but it shouldn’t be impossible. So I’m going to give the 2 – 3 color challenge a try.
How to Choose Your 2 (or 3) Garden Colors
Basically , it comes down to either complementary colors or analogous colors.
Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel, like red and orange-red or purple and purple-violet. They are very close, but have slightly different hues. I’ve found that pairing these colors is deceptively hard. Have you ever tried to pick out a shade of red that multiple people will have to wear. The blue-reds and the orange-reds will not be happy with scarlet-red. Vita Sackville-West’s famous white garden is as much a study in grays and silver as it is in whites, which vary from creamy, to drab, to golden and on.
When you get it right, analogous colors are very restful, but you need a contrasting color to make an impact. Three analogous colors, such as blue, blue-green, and green-yellow would create a harmonious garden, with maybe some sprinkles of orange thrown in, to shake things up. This is still a bit limiting for me, so I can’t see myself going analogous.
Complementary colors sit across from each other on the color wheel: red/green, yellow/violet, blue/orange. Complementary colors have the most contrast and are the easiest on the eyes. (That’s complementary, as in complete. Not complimentary.)
If you stare at a color for 20 seconds or longer, it will tire your eyes. If you shift your gaze to a sheet of white paper, you will see what is called an “afterimage”. An afterimage is a similarly shaped image as what you were staring at, in its complementary color. So if you stare at some purple phlox, when you switch over to the white paper, your eyes will see yellow.
Pairing the 2 complementary colors together in the garden gives your eyes relief. You don’t have to stick to primary colors, to get this benefit. For instance, if you went with red and green and did not want the Christmas decorations effect, you could opt for burgundy instead of true red. Green is abundant in the garden in a multitude of shades, but adding burgundy also offers the opportunity to use plants with reddish leaves.
One of the mistakes I’ve made in the past is that the darker or lighter the color, the more it will need contrast, in order to be seen and make an effect. Deep, dark purples will fade into the distance without the contrast of a sunny yellow. Pale yellows will be missed entirely, unless they are the foil of a darker color. Then they suddenly light up.
My favorite combo is blue and white. They are not complementary colors, but I figure white is pretty close to pale yellow, right? Unfortunately there are not many true blue flowers, so even a blue and orange color scheme would be very limiting. But I’m thinking I will push the limits here and include some purple-blues and white and then accent with either peachy orange or yellow. We’ll, see. It will make an interesting experiment and it will certainly make deciding which plants to keep easier.