High Ground 5

Classic Christopher Lloyd. “Mastering the Color Palette”

ON RED: START WITH PASSION. We see red. We blush red with shame or anger. We wave a red rag at a bull to spark his aggression …

Thus warned and inhibited, how shall we react to red flowers in our gardens? I just wish there were more of them and a greater range of choice. I don’t want to hive them off into ghettos either, which is the cowardly treatment of a color that, basically, you fear…

But red should mean excitement of the most exhilarating kind. What could be more exciting than an Oriental poppy, newly opened and bursting into the sunrise of another blue day? To avoid growing it because the scarlet coloring is “difficult” is as tragic as wanting to be middle-aged before you have savored being young, adventurous, and carefree.

So, how to use it? Red, having its own volcanic energy, becomes electrifying near sunset; plant red flowers where they will catch the evening sun. Combine them with all sorts of colors, purple for instance.

ON ORANGE: With the vitality of glowing embers fanned by wind, orange is possibly the most exciting and challenging color of all. Yet many gardeners with weak digestions reject it out of hand for any part of their garden. There’s no need for such squeamish-ness. In the mixed border concept of combining all types of woody and herbaceous plants, orange can be lavishly included. There are not many hardy perennials with orange flowers, but the color is relatively common among bulbs, annuals, and tender perennials. Don’t pretend that deep yellow or some sort of salmon is orange. The real thing, taking you straight back to childhood, is typified by the naturally orange calendula, or pot marigold…

ON W HIT E: A great burden of unsullied purity is borne by the color white. Cold, staring, and assertive, it draws your eye but makes you wish it hadn’t. Most white flowers automatically soften this effect. Snowdrop petals are curved so they catch the light in all sorts of different ways, and there is green in their bells. White nigella (love-in-a-mist) flowers are surrounded by filigreed bracts and foliage; white Crambe cordifolia is a great cloud broken up into tiny units and so is Gypsophila paniculata, even when the flowers are doubled, as in ‘Bristol Fairy’.

If you use a rather solid white flower, don’t have too much of it. Break it up. A mixture of impatiens is not nearly as strident as an entire carpet of a white-flowered strain. I love Phlox Carolina ‘Miss Lingard’, with its cones of white flowers, but they are dense on the plant, and the dark green supporting foliage is heavy. Present it in small doses. If you grow white-flowered delphiniums, their solid white spires are greatly leavened if a variety is chosen in which the central “bee” (the corolla) is black…

ON GREEN: The color green is enigmatic. We interpret it as the antithesis of red, safety versus danger. And yet the most common form of colorblindness cannot distinguish between the two. Not much safety in that…

The commonest green element comes from grass, hence all those lawns… More often than not I find large expanses of lawn boring. All those characterless little blades of regularly chewed-off grass. What’s so good about that? A cool setting for borders of gay flowers we are told… Often I would prefer quiet paving.

A meadow is different. Even if it consists only of grasses, they will be different species of grass, with subtle differences of color and habit. Some will be proudly upstanding; others will lean in the wind and reflect a silvery light from their arching foliage…

In our borders grass is a necessary buffer. The loudest oranges or reds, with which it contrasts so tellingly, can be let loose given green as a safety net. We sometimes hear of all-green borders, which seem a bit gimmicky, as though the gardener felt an anxiety to draw attention to himself without going so far as to be outrageous. But it could be done enjoyably, especially with a prominence of large, glossy, light-reflecting leaves…

ON YELLOW: Whatever the “rules” may dictate, there is no color with which yellow cannot be combined. Unlike pink and purple, it is dependably cheerful…

The sun and yellow are in close league. Yellow flowers take on a wonderful glow toward sunset, less volcanic than red or orange but more directly communicative. A bed of rich yellow rudbeckias, at this time of day, is transfixing, and this holds good even if the sky is overcast. Yellow is the easiest color, next to green, for a plant to produce, and this is most noticeable in spring when much foliage that will later change to green is pristine yellow. In fall it is the other way about, and green leaves– say of a tree like Ginkgo biloba–will change to luminous yellow. This is emphasized by the mellow quality of fall sunlight itself, which is in complete contrast to the acid sharpness of spring…–Adapted from Christopher Lloyd’s series, “Mastering the Color Palette,” Horticulture, 1999

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