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Gardens Blog

The colour … yellow

As a professional garden designer, I believe it is essential to understand all my client’s preferences before starting to develop a scheme and planting plan. So one of the questions on my form is “Is there anything you particularly dislike?” and I am amazed at the number of times I get the answer “Yellow. I just can’t stand yellow!” and I wonder what hideous horticultural experience they must have suffered to provoke such an extreme opinion.

Yellow is a wonderful colour on its own – it is the first sign of spring brightening borders and hedgerows with primroses and celandines, it brightens dark corners in the summer and yellow leaves scattering the ground herald the onset of autumn.

Now I have to agree that there are some yellows which I don’t like either – the grubby mustard centre of certain asters and that strong chrome yellow of Bidens which is so often seen as an unfortunate companion to scarlet geraniums in tubs and baskets – neither get a listing in my designs.

Therefore perhaps my question should not be “anything you don’t like?” but instead “any colour combinations you don’t like?” Picture bright yellow daffodils against green leaves bobbing in the breeze: beautiful. Picture bright yellow daffodils with a background of bright red brick wall: awful. It is basic colour wheel sense – yellow sits opposite red and while the two can be combined successfully, without care they can also jar the senses.

So let’s try a different colour combination and put yellow with grey or silver, yellow with bright blue or dark purple, yellow with orange or white, and start to see how fabulous yellow can be. Opposites provide impact while harmonising shades soften each other more effectively. If you look at the foliage of yellow flowered plants and shrubs you will find that the colour combining has already been started for you and you just need to continue similar hues – felted silvery Verbascums, acid Euphorbias, burgundy Berberis and blue green leaves of Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’. It need not be a great swathe of lemon; a carefully placed group of yellow Primula bulleyana or spires of Eremurus Bungei can catch the eye and add a zing of colour to enliven an otherwise understated planting.

But it’s not just flowers. Yellow foliage will add value to any border – Hosta “Zounds” offers big quilted leaves that glow in the sunshine – and where would autumn be without falling yellow maple leaves, buttery Gleditsia and waning Wisteria? And then there are the yellow fruits of crabapple Malus ‘Golden Hornet’ and ornamental quinces that stay on bare branches like golden globes, and the berries of Pyracantha which birds adore.

Finally, of course, there is pure yellow and then there is the whole range of shades from the palest lemon primula to the deepest golden Hemerocallis. The mantra “Right plant, Right place” doesn’t just apply to growing conditions; it applies just as importantly to “Right planting companions” too. This is where you really should work with a designer when reviewing your garden; someone with a trained eye for colours, who will combine them properly so that each colour works with the others, throughout the seasons, and who encourages you to look beyond the conventional. In short, to exclude yellow would be to deny yourself the visual pleasure of hundreds of plants and planting combinations – and that really would be a loss to you and your garden.