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Color Schemes

Since color preference is so personal, we hesitate to suggest definite color schemes. We have one client, for example, who is fond of magenta. She claims it is a "cool" color, and uses it lavishly in a garden of great beauty and distinction. We have an English friend who is fond of red; her long double borders fairly sing with warm brilliant color. In our own old, mature garden we are more interested in line, form, texture, and green foliage, than in color, and use it only Incidentally. Magenta is difficult and tricky; the reds would be garish in northeastern or Middle Western sections, where we lack the misty English atmosphere which blends bright colors. Our type of garden does not fit new plantings in which the right effect of line, form, or texture is yet to come into being. But since we discourage the use of restrictive and complex color schemes, we will offer other reasonable solutions. The two methods that follow have been found in actual practice to produce satisfactory gardens.


The difficulty with one-color schemes is the scarcity of bloom at certain seasons. If you rely on nature's seasonal colors, however, yellow and white for spring, rose for early summer, blue and gold for midsummer, pink for late summer, and blue, purple, and gold for autumn, it will not be too difficult to have abundant color throughout the season. Although she is no stickler for subtle harmonies, nature does have a lavish hand.

This natural color scheme provides bloom from frost to frost, and also satisfies the more catholic taste irked by restricted schemes. Clashes there may be, for there is bound to be some overlapping, but these, if carefully noted when they occur, can be corrected next year. Meanwhile cutting flowers of offending color will stop the disturbance. To avoid obvious crudities, some care in planning is necessary. Oriental poppies with pink and blue lupine or pink pyrethrum or tawny daylilies with crimson climbing roses are obviously bad combinations that frequently result from a lack of planning. Plant the poppies instead with cool lavender iris, and the tawny daylilies with white or yellow flowers. We do not advocate the seasonal method for gardeners highly sensitive to color nuances. For them, more refined and subtle combinations hold greater charm.

The seasonal scheme usually results in a certain boldness. We cannot agree with the woman who banned coreopsis from her garden because it was "common and vulgar." Often bold colors are just what is needed to bring vitality and verve to the picture. We would suggest rather the sparing use of strong bold color. Such colors must be held in check, if the quietness of the garden is to be preserved. Most gardens need brilliant yellow, strong red, orange, and intense blue but only in proper relationship to other hues, and only when and where needed. To women, red is usually the most intense color, but science maintains that yellow is the most brilliant, blue the dullest, and red and green about equal. Men usually feel that yellow is more intense than red. The fact that red blindness is common in men and rare in women has bearing on the use of color in gardens. Women will usually prefer soft colors, men the stronger ones.


A helpful method for those whose color sense is not excessively developed (and this includes most of us), is dependent on a dominant color—a single hue, tint, or shade used throughout the garden. Masses of it are maintained at every season of the flowering year. The effect is that of a single color, but other colors are introduced in smaller groups as contrasts and foils for the dominant masses. When used in this manner, the lesser colors do not compete but accentuate.

For example, if you have a leaning toward blue, use groups of various blue iris in the spring picture, followed by lupines, delphinium, ageratum, blue salvia, the speedwells, and finally great clumps of hardy fall asters and monkshood. With these blues, plant a small amount of white, yellow, orange, as well as some pink and pale rose. The blue, of course, will not always be "true," for this is fairly rare in nature. There will be various tints and shades of blue, blue-violet, mauve, and pure violet, but the general effect will be blue. Gertrude Jekyll felt that the blue-mauve colors should never be used with true blue, but as one colorist expresses it, Miss Jekyll was the only person she ever heard of who could keep them apart.

If you delight in yellow and want a garden that always seems full of sunlight, begin with long narrow drifts of narcissus and yellow tulips, follow with iris, the various daylilies (a good selection gives an extremely long period of bloom), hardy garden lilies, coreopsis, annuals from creamy yellow to strong yellow and orange, perennial blackeyed Susan (Rud-beckia speciosa), and end up the season with helinium, helianthus, and hardy chrysanthemums. With yellow and its tints dominant, you can use white and blue, orange, or clear scarlet for contrast; and where the yellow is soft or pale, pinks of the same chroma. This, however, must be done with care.

plate 16
Plate 16. A Composition with blue as the Dominant Color
1. Polemonium reptans7. Veronica Blue Spirea
2. Linum perenne8. Lilium henryi
3. Ageratum Blue Perfection 9. Monarda didyma Cambridge Scarlet
4. Iris germanica Blue Peter10. Anchusa italica Dropmore
5. Phlox Miss Lingard11. Paeonia Festiva maxima
6. Iris sibirica Perrys Blue 

The same idea can be carried out in white, red, pink, purple, or any one of the distinguishable hues. Your choice may affect the earliness or lateness of the garden picture, and it may be wise to change the dominant color for certain seasons. Of course the color purist would never care for such a broad and varied treatment. To him, this is not harmony. He avoids violent contrast, preferring closer, more subtle harmonies of tints and shades. His color scheme will not have the boldness and vigor of the dominant-color idea, and unless superbly handled will often appear ineffectual.

A number of flowers contain more than one color. Sometimes it is the center or the underside of the bloom that is different, or, as in tulips, several colors blend together in each flower. You can use these secondary colors as transitional elements in color harmony. They will often tie the various members of a group together. Often they suggest other colors which, added to a composition, will accentuate the dominant color and so create a more interesting picture.

It may be you will interpret this as a plea for stronger color in the garden. It probably is, for strong hues and off shades have too long been neglected. In avoiding them, we have followed the line of least resistance, being unwilling to give the matter enough thought. As a result many gardens lack strength and individuality. Each is a pale copy of another.

Often when a designer has been bold for a moment, he spoils a sharp contrast by introducing white, long considered the one color that was always safe. Yet white can ruin strong contrast by draining off too much of the deeper, vibrant color. How often we blunt the sharpness of delphinium and orange lilies by the introduction of Phlox Miss Lingard, or make less strong the combination of veronica, monkshood, and orange daylilies by the introduction of a later white phlox! A better method of holding down vivid contrasts is to reduce the quantity, not the quality of a composition. The introduction of groups of white flowers here and there in the garden is a sure way of creating a spotty and nervous effect, unless they are so arranged as to produce a definite rhythm. As a peacemaker, try palest yellow or creamy white, but rely on foliage, distance, or partial shade to hold down strong color combinations.


The shimmer of light and shade across the greensward or flower border has wonderful possibilities. It is not necessary, or even desirable, to have a flower garden bathed in full sunlight all day long. There is greater beauty in the play of light and shade. Colors that are bold or even garish in full sun are deeper and more lovely in shadow. This is particularly true of magenta and true purples. Bright, luminous colors, scarlet and intense yellow, are more luminous in semishade, but dull colors, dusty pink, the "smokes," and even dark blue recede when so placed. These always need full sun. Even the shadow of a passing cloud alters color, and the late afternoon sun filtering through foliage creates a different color effect from that of morning. Vistas that might seem long and monotonous, if unbroken by shadows are lovely when the shade of tall trees and shrubs falls across them.

It is a tradition that trees, because of their shade and root competition, have no place in or near a garden, but if the right ones are selected there is little competition. Trees increase the scale of a garden, are excellent accents, and cast pleasing shadows. Maples, lindens, and elms, perhaps, should not be used, but many of the smaller, less dense and greedy, flowering trees such as cercis, dogwood, sourwood, magnolia, and laburnum, or flowering fruits such as apple or cherry can be planted not only for their bloom, which is important, but for contrast of line, scale, texture, and shadow.

The experienced gardener or the one with a developed sense of color is often dissatisfied with such simple schemes as we have suggested. To him (or more often to her), color is fascinating, a wonderful opportunity. For these readers, we offer the following notes.


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