Colour, colour everywhere

To plant and maintain a flower border, with a good scheme for colour, is by no means the easy thing that is commonly supposed: Gertrude Jeykell

A garden full of colourful flowers is a delight to behold – but for it to be a pleasure and not a pain for viewers requires some talent.

English plantswoman Gertrude Jeykell, whose Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden was published in 1914, is considered an authority on the subject while she, in turn, based her theories on the palette used by 19th century painter JMW Turner, renowned for his misty, cloudy seascapes.

Californian landscape designer Nancy Power describes the general theory as using yellow flowers to create a sense of light, with cool blue flowers and grey foliage for contrast and “ending with the brights”.

“I adore colour,” she says. “There is no bad colour – it’s just how you use it.”

Nancy Power. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Nancy Power’s courtyard garden. Photo: Nancy Power

Because her own garden near Venice Beach is relatively small, Nancy uses flowering plants in pots to bring in additional colour. She has also painted a wall a vibrant blue, copied from colour she saw on the Spanish island of Majorca. “As the light changes, the hue of the wall changes and it changes how the garden looks.”

Rosemary Alexander, author, garden designer and principal of The English Gardening School in London, is a regular judge at The Chelsea Flower Show and has seen colour come and go and come into the show gardens, mentioning in particular Luciano Giubbilei’s gold medal garden at the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show.

“It was a very austere garden,” she recalls. “Minimalist with green, clipped hedging and pleached trees. But there was one little patch of wine-red peonies, purple irises, blue sage and astrantias in purple-red colours. It was a slight opening of the door to more.”

Interestingly, Luciano himself says it was that garden that inspired him to begin using flowers in his designs and to seek training at Great Dixter where he was given his own border to play with.

Rosemary Alexander. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rosemary’s views on colour were confronted when she visited Le Jardin Plume created by Patrick and Sylvie Quibel on an orchard property in Normandy, France. The summer garden is described as a “modern knot garden” with beds enclosed by clipped box hedging and each bed filled with grasses and perennials in hot colours.


Le Jardin Plume. Photo: Rosemary Alexander

“Nothing was staked and everything was mixed in together – dahlias, sunflowers, grasses, red-hot pokers,” Rosemary says. “For anyone from England it was a huge step away from the Rosemary Verrey garden with a touch of pink and a touch of silver.”

But she warns that done without plant knowledge such a garden can look like “an upturned tin of fruit salad”.

Rosemary’s own 0.4ha garden in Hampshire – Sandhill Farm House Garden – which she took on after 11 years as a tenant in a National Trust property where she renovated a 6ha garden, comprises a series of rooms, including a walled garden, a grass border that is “a joy in winter” and a “pretty English garden border” of pinks, mauves and whites.

Rosemary Alexander’s own garden, Sandhill Farm House. Photo: Rosemary Alexander

Tauranga landscape designer Michelle McDonnell points out the light in New Zealand is so clear that colours appear to be much stronger than in Europe, which is why, she says, so many Kiwis prefer cooling green and white gardens.

“Our growing season is also much longer than in Europe – they celebrate their short summer and hazy light with abundant, blowsy colour. Yes, it’s lovely to have colour in the garden, but we have to be careful how we do it.”

Tauranga landscape designer Michelle McDonnell. Photo: Michelle McDonnell

The yellow border at Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In his 2009 book Colourful Gardens, Dennis Greville says in the preface that he wants emotion, passion and an interplay of light and shadow in a garden, things he believes are missing from the majority of the nation’s plots.

The book is divided into colour scheme sections with each containing a double-page photo spread of suggestions for each season. He also introduces readers to colour theory use in gardens – harmonies, optical effects and the difference between warm and cool colours.

“You shouldn’t be afraid of colour,” Michelle says, “but its use does need to be thought through. If there’s too much colour in a garden then it looks spotty and loses something. It’s always best to group colours for impact.”

This garden owner chose her plants first and the paint for her table second. Photo: Sandra Simpson

And she believes a garden should reinforce the house it surrounds. “Take a colour from the house, say the roof or joinery or even paving, and bring that colour into the garden to make the building look as though it should be there. And don’t let anyone tell you that green isn’t a colour – it’s the best one of the lot.”

To read Colour Scheme for the Flower Garden, go here for the list of chapters.

This article was originally published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.


2 thoughts on “Colour, colour everywhere

  1. I remember well Nancy Power’s presentation at an Australian Landscape Conference many years ago. Very inspiring! I was interested to read Michelle’s comments about NZ’s bright light causing gardeners to prefer white and cool greens. I think that in Australia’s harsh sunlight, unless they are very small, most white flowers lose definition and look like reflective blobs and this makes them very difficult to combine with any other colour. So maybe it needs to be either all white, or no white!

  2. It was the same conference, albeit when they still ran them in Auckland as well as Melbourne (have been to one in Melbourne but haven’t been able to justify another, unfortunately). For a while in New Zealand a standard planting scheme was box hedge or lavender enclosing/underneath standard roses, either Margaret Merrill or Iceberg! Saw them everywhere. Fortunately, we got over such a narrow prescription.

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