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Gardens Blog

A Thought on Colour

Lavender Wind Farm, Whidbey Island

If I lean out of an upstairs window at home I can see the steeply-pitched tiled roof on an old Sussex farmhouse up the lane. The house itself must be at least three hundred years old and the roof, while it has undoubtedly been replaced over time, has that wonderful soft glow of clay tiles which have mellowed in sunshine and withstood rain and snow over the seasons. And looking at it recently it made me think about how rarely we use stretches of single colours in our gardens.

We are all aware of the risks of planting in ones – spotty impact, disappearing from view, dominant colours – and the benefits of planting in drifts, especially when seen from a distance. Also we have learned about putting colours together effectively, using a colour wheel, or contrasting shades using a colour triangle (for more about this, I recommend  Andrew Wilson’s beautiful book Contemporary Colour in the Garden, Timber Press, 2011). But how often would you consider planting in a block of the same colour?

Visitors to Monet’s garden in Giverny will know that the narrow, rectangular beds were originally created by the artist so that he could grow flowers of the same shade (but not necessarily the same variety or species) together and watch the effect of wind and light on them. Thus he would have had tulips, clematis, roses and peonies together – just picture the succession of crimson silky petals turning silver and dancing in the sun as the breeze caught them. Or the rich dark purples of clematis and iris glowing in low evening light.  Passing a lavender field on the train from London yesterday, there was a sudden retina-searing streak of blurred blue intensity which no perfectly planted herbaceous border could hope to match.

Where do we see single colour borders now? Sissinghurst’s iconic White Garden and Purple Border are worth examining in detail if you are interested in creating something similar, and Tony Lord’s books provide good detailed information on many of the plants used there. While it looks simple, it is extremely difficult to carry it off well – what looks white when seen alone may prove to contain a shade of lemon or pink or grey which looks grubby against another brighter white petal. Foliage, particularly silver foliage, is an effective buffer between flowers of slightly different tonality. Otherwise, I suppose the colour most often seen en masse is green – lawns, tree canopies, and the new favourite, grass borders. It is one of the hardest colours to use when painting and even watching cloud shadows moving over a meadow gives an idea of how green alters in changing light, in many ways much more than other ‘flower’ colours.

As an aside, it can be an interesting exercise to take a black and white photograph of a stretch of planting and look at the contrasts and shapes without being distracted by the colours used. Furthermore, the influence of colour on mood deserves a blog all to itself.

Finally, in order to be successful, mono-colour planting really does need space – to be looked at from close up and also from a distance, which is why my view of the old farmhouse roof is probably so satisfying. Up close I would become distracted by lichens, marks in the clay, variations in the individual tiles, whereas from a distance, I can stand back and simply enjoy the richness and depth of the expanse of warm red colour against the summer sky.


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