Colour in the Garden
An individuals’ idea of which colour combinations can give the greatest pleasure vary enormously. And as with other areas of life, fashionable colours come and go in gardening, although changes lend to be rather slower to put into effect. I have no wish to try and tell anyone which colours or colour combinations they should use in their gardens. I do want, however, to indicate a few, fairly general accepted principles of colour perception and appreciation: most people wouldn’t argue for example that among individual colours, reds and oranges are perceived as being hot and aggressive while blues, greens and whites are cool and restful.
For colour combinations, a colour wheel can be used to demonstrate different effects. Here the spectral colours of white light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet are drawn as segments of a wheel. Adjacent colours are then seen to harmonise; colours on the opposite side of the wheel make strong contrasts. These strong contrasts don’t appeal to every one and are often referred to as ‘colour clashes’ but there are occasions when they can be effective. The combination of certain yellows with certain blues for instance is one that I find very pleasing in part of my own garden.
When ‘painting’ your garden, bear in mind that unlike real paints, more plant colours are available at certain times of the year than others. Early spring, for instance, is predominately a season of yellows and oranges, the height of summer brings the greatest variety while autumn brings browns, oranges and reds but rather fewer blues. It will always be easier to follow nature’s inclinations rather than light them: but by all means create a few surprises by seeking out unusually coloured plants in nursery catalogues.
Colour can be used in your garden in two main ways: group together plants of predominately one colour or blend them. At its extreme, the single colour approach is often seen in while gardens (not surprisingly as there is only one shade of white) or silver borders. In a mixed or herbaceous border, I can do no better than refer you to Gertrude Jekyll. In the early part of this century, she experimented for many years with long deep borders in her own garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey, England. She used intense, strong colours like oranges and reds in the centre and gradually introduced paler colour at the ends.
Most gardens appear as they do more by accident than design. There are two main reasons for this. First, a gardener taking over an established garden is generally loath to change the existing layout; or at least to change it very quickly or extensively. This may be because of lack of time, inclination or simply appreciation of how significantly his or her gardening life could be improved by relatively small but well thought out design changes. And secondly, on a new site, the financial constraints after purchasing a house, or simply a belief that the task is just too daunting, prevents many new gardeners from planning their garden in its entirely. They are content to let things evolve piecemeal.
I hope that I can persuade you that planning your garden is really a matter of applied common-sense and I find it useful to think of the key elements of garden design in the form of three questions: how do you make the most of what your garden site offers; how do you make your garden function effectively for your needs; and how do you make your garden appear larger than it really is?
First, therefore, what does your garden site offer you as a garden planner? The type ofwill dictate to a greater or lesser extent the plants that you can grow: to a greater extent if it is markedly acid or alkaline: to a lesser extent if it is merely very sandy or clayey. Nonetheless, I doubt if there are any garden features that any soil prevents you from having if you are prepared to compromise slightly on the choice of plants.
The topography of the site, the humps, hollows and slopes can influence the ease with which digging orcan be performed, but should be considered positively too. A slope is always the best position for a ; the top of a slope is the best place in an overall sloping garden for a fairly formal pool while the-foot of a slope is best for an informal one where natural spilling over of water at the edges enables the margins to be softened with bog and waterside plants. The base of a hollow or even the foot of a slope is often a poor place for a fruit garden because dense, cold. Frosty air accumulates there and will damage the blossom and such a site is also no place for slightly tender or early blossoming ornamentals. Conversely, the top of a slope is often a windy place and this too will make for an unproductive fruit garden because pollinating insects are blown away.
The only already existing plants that are worth considering seriously in a garden design are trees because they can’t be moved or quickly replaced. Many very good gardens are largely designed around one or more mature trees as these generally dictate where much of the light and shadow lies and, because they draw heavily on the food and water reserves of the soil, also dictate where you can’t place vegetable and fruit gardens or mixed borders. The presence of trees, especially deciduous ones, will also influence the positioning of the pools and the greenhouse; neither of which benefits from shade or falling leaves.
Does your garden have special and unusual natural features? Among those that I consider valuable and important enough to justify reorganising other garden activities are a natural outcrop of rock that offers you the chance to have a real rock garden; and a stream or even a wet ditch around which you can plant a bog garden.
There are two aspects to making your garden function effectively for you. The first is to position features thoughtfully. A vegetable garden must have as much sun as possible yet. As it is not usually a particularly attractive feature, it should be carefully screened to separate it visually from the rest of the garden without the screen itself casting much shade. Positioning the vegetable plot on the sunny boundaries of the garden is the easiest way to do this.
Conversely, a herb garden is functional and attractive, both ends being served by having it as close as possible to the kitchen. When positioning purely ornamental beds and borders, be sure to place them where they can be appreciated at the time of year they will be at their best. This is most important in relation to a shrubbery grown for winter colour; there s little point in placing it at the furthest point from the house where no-one will venture in winter time.
The second way in which your garden can be made to function well is to ensure that it is designed for labour saving maintenance. I have mentioned how the choice of plants and use of particular techniques can be very important but the basic-design of the garden is significant too. The single most annoying and time consuming gardening task is in trying to mow twists and corners of a lawn that are too small for the mower and are therefore either lelt untidy or must be cut laboriously with shears. A gravel path adjoining a lawn is visually lovely, but you must be prepared for occasionally having to brush stones from the grass. A gravel path adjoining a vegetable plot, however, can be a nightmare as you walk from soil to gravel and pick up vast quantities of the path on your muddy footwear.
Creating a false illusion of space is not difficult in most gardens; and very rewarding too. Give the impression that there are a great many plants in your garden whilst at the same time filling relatively little of the area with them.
The simplest way to achieve this apparent conjuring trick is to keep the centre of the garden open – a lawn is the easiest way – and confine most of your plants to the periphery. This also has the advantage of obscuring the boundary fence or wall, making it impossible to see where your property ends.
This effect can be improved still further if there is open space beyond your garden (fields or parkland for instance) that can be glimpsed through gaps in these marginal plantings. And make good use of curves in, beds, borders and paths to suggest that there is something beyond what can actually be seen. Placing a local point so that it is glimpsed through an archway or a gap between two plantings also helps to take the eye a long way and enhance the feeling of distance.
Having decided, I hope, that your garden would benefit from a degree of design or redesign. How many of the changes must be worked out in detail beforehand? I have a suspicion that many would-be designers are put off by the detailed scale plans (often beautifully executed in water-colours) that they may have seen in books and magazines. These might be fine for professionals and theorists but I have never seen such a plan translated into practice without considerable modification. I find it much more effective simply to equip yourself with several sheets of plain paper on which the outline of your garden is shown, place yourself at an advantage point (usually a bedroom window) and start to sketch in the various features that you want to retain or introduce. The most important single feature is a local point but the precise positioning of this can only be decided from ground level when you look from the various possible viewpoints: windows, doorways, gales or paths. In a large garden, you will probably require more than one local point to provide visual satisfaction from different spots.