From Paint to Petals



AS IMPORTANT AS a garden’s colors are, they are often overlooked when integrating a house with its surrounding landscape. I became very aware of this after repainting my turn-of-the-century Victorian in Seattle. Originally painted white with black trim, I decided to restore the house to a more vibrant, late-19th-century color scheme. Enlivened with a deep forest green body, with ochre, burgundy, and black accents, the house was soon the talk of the neighborhood. However, Charles Price and Glenn Withey, the garden designers with whom I’d been working, had warned me that the new colors were going to disrupt the garden’s harmony with the house. The masses of pink-eyed, off-white Lavatera ‘Barnsley’ (which had been a favorite against the white siding) now struck a strangely discordant note. As a color anchor for the garden from late spring through fall, the lavatera had been a pleasing rallying point for silvery artemisias, ‘Cambridge Blue’ lobelia, and pale yellow Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’. Now, however, the lavatera stood out forlornly against the deep green body of the house, and made the burgundy and ochre accents appear muddy. It was obvious that Charles and Glenn had been right, after all—if you do not consider the


What a difference! The new, rich color scheme of Coleman’s 1906 Victorian is beautifully complemented by the vibrant reds, chartreuses, yellows, and purples of many plants, including geraniums, cannas and sunflowers. The use of container plantings along the stairs cleverly allows the designers to rearrange each season.

Plant Pairings for Six Common House Colors

The plants below harmonize (H) and/or contrast (C) with the following house colors. Remember, however, that plant hues can vary between individual plants, and change throughout the season.

FF-WHITE Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ H (gray-white foliage, reflects light)
  Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ H (light gray-green foliage)/C (autumn colors, flowers)
  Physocarpus ‘Diablo’ C (dark brown foliage)
  Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’ H (blue-green needles, reflects light)
  Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ H (light gray-green foliage; flower buds)/C (rusty pink flowers)
YELLOW Aster xfrikartii ‘Monch’ C (intense lavender-blue flowers)
  Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea C (dark orange-red foliage)
  Juniperus scopulorum ‘Wichita Blue’ C (blue cast to foliage)
  Pieris japonica ‘Flaming Silver’ H (variegated foliage of cream and green)/C (new leaves, buds, flowers)
  Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’ H (gold cast to summer foliage; orange-gold cast to autumn foliage)
BROWN Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ H (red-brown foliage)
  Andromeda polifolia ‘Blue Ice’ C (blue-gray foliage)
  Calluna vulgaris ‘Burgundy Fire’ C (apple-green foliage in spring)/H (rich, rusty foliage in winter)
  Cimicifuga simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ H (dark brown foliage)
  Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Northern Lights’ C (variegated foliage)/H (reddish brown flowers and fruits)
BRICK Begonia grandis var. alba H (reddish buds, undersides of foliage)/C (white flowers)
  Berberis thunbergii ‘Bagatelle’ H (reddish foliage)
  Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’ and ‘Taurus’ C (green foliage/H (reddish orange-brown flowers)
  Pinus nigra C (dark green needles)/H (reddish brown trunk, beige candles)
  Spiraea ‘Magic Carpet’ H (new foliage; magenta flower buds)/C (older foliage; flowers age to biscuit-tan)
  Athyrium niponicum var. pictum H (new foliage contains more pink, older foliage contains more gray)
  Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ C (gray-green purplish foliage)/H (foliage in shade)
  Miscanthus sinensis Adagio’ H (gray-green foliage/reddish brown flower heads)/C (yellow autumn foliage)
  Pinus sylvestris H (warm, coppery bark, gray-green foliage)
  Sedum ‘Matrona’ H (gray-green foliage)/C (pinkish flowers)
  Berberis vulgaris ‘Royal Cloak‘ C (dark foliage in sun; red fruit in winter)/H (green-hued foliage in shade)
  Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ H (light matte green foliage)
  Physocarpus ‘Dart’s Gold’ C (golden foliage in sun)
  Salvia officinalis ‘Tricolor’ H (older foliage)/C (newer foliage)
  Yucca ‘Garland’s Gold’ H (green-yellow foliage)/C (yellow stripes)
subshrub 6-10
ornamental grass 6-9
shrub 4-9
tree 3-8
perennial 4-9
perennial 5-9
shrub 4-9
tree 4-9
shrub 5-8
shrub 5-9
tree 6-9
shrub 3-8
shrub 5-8
perennial 5-9
perennial 5-9
perennial 6-9
shrub 4-9
perennial 5-9
tree 4-9
shrub 5-9
perennial 5-9
shrub/tree 5-9
ornamental grass 6-9
tree 2-7
perennial 4-9
shrub 4-9
tree 3-8
shrub 4-9
subshrub 6-9
subshrub 5-9


Charles and Glenn began to sort out the problem by taking stir sticks of the house’s new colors with them to the nursery, and bringing back plants that we could compare, discuss, and arrange into different combinations. (Leaves or flowers, gathered from friends’ gardens, work just as well, and can be taken to the nursery to show the staff the plants, or at least the colors, that you are considering.) Sometimes bringing the actual plants home and looking at them against the house is the only way to really see how the colors will work. Finding a cooperative nursery that will take unwanted plants back helps a great deal. If you’re lucky enough to set up such an arrangement, don’t jeopardize it by planting, pruning, or otherwise mistreating the plants that you plan to return.


If you want to avoid color clashes, it’s important to decide early in the process which of your existing trees or shrubs will stay when you repaint your house, and which will go. Pare the garden down to the few shrubs and trees that you can’t bear to part with. Be tough! Then remember these plants’ colors when choosing your house’s. For example, on opposite sides of our front yard, we originally had a red-leaved Japanese maple and a lavender lilac. We kept the Japanese maple, since its red foliage harmonized with the trim detail, but replaced the lilac with a gold-leaved Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’, which stood out more pleasingly against the deep green body of the house.


Light intensity and the area of the country in which you live both play a crucial role in plant selection. Gold-foliaged plants (for example Choisya ‘Sundance’) can brighten and lend warmth to a cool, Pacific Northwest garden, but would be washed out under full sun in the South. Similarly, a soft pink pelargonium, fresh and luminous in diffuse, northerly light, would appear flattened and bleached in a desert climate’s glare. A better choice for an area with harsh sun would be a stronger pink

pelargonium, whose more saturated hue would stand up to the intense light.


The color of soil is another often overlooked design element, except when one is gauging its fertility and tilth. A rich, red soil makes a very different backdrop from a soft yellow or gray one. A red or purplish heuchera, for example, would blend into a red loam, but would stand out against light gray or yellow earth. The ideal black loam that so many gardeners strive for, and that makes an ideal background color for almost all types of foliage, is not commonly found in nature. In a new garden, the only way to get it is to put down mulch or other topdressings.


Seasonal considerations also play an important role in color selection. Evergreens, for example, are often used as foundation plantings and for winter interest. Remember, however, that certain conifer colors can change and intensify with the seasons. Microbiota decussata, a low, spreading shrub, is a pleasing, versatile, deep green in the summer. Come winter, though, it takes on a rich, bronzed brown hue that would go poorly with a yellow house, but would lend an air of elegance to a cool, blue-gray house. In winter’s weak sunlight, golden Irish yews harden into an amber-tinged yellow, while some Chamaecyparis thyoides cultivars can turn a rich, smoky violet.

The color of deciduous foliage also changes throughout the seasons. Most summer-green oak trees, such as white oak (Quercus alba), scarlet oak (Q. coccinea), or shingle oak (Q. imbricaria), begin the growing year by sprouting spring buds in a rainbow of colors, ranging from pinky yellow to reddish brown to brilliant chartreuse. Come fall, color diversity ranges from a somber brown to a brilliant scarlet. Heat, light, and humidity will affect foliage colors as well. If grown in too much shade, deep purple foliage, such as that of Cotinus coggygria Rubrifolius Group, can lose its intensity of color, washing out to a muddy green. Likewise, a golden-leaved elderberry loses its golden spring intensity as summer progresses in warmer climates. Sometimes, varying light intensities can produce different, yet equally pleasing, effects. Rosa glauca,

when grown in full sun, shows more of a mauve, reddish hue, in keeping with its previous name, R. rubrifolia. In partial shade, the leaves grow broader and more open, and are more of a chalky blue green.

Flowers can be a more reliable source of summer color than foliage. Their colors tend to remain constant throughout their flowering season (although there are exceptions, such as roses, which can bleach when exposed to heat and humidity). The strong but mixed red of Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Taurus’ or P. a. ‘Firetail’, for example, will associate well with many house color schemes, and can provide a nearly constant display from mid- to late summer. Many crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.), given suitable conditions, will provide months of steady flower color as well.


The architectural style of a house can play an important role in the color of the plants you choose. A comfortable but architecturally undistinguished rambler or ranch house, for example, will look most harmonious when planted with foliage that softens its facade and pulls and blends its colors out into the landscape. A stronger, more classically inspired house, such as a Georgian, Queen Anne, or authentic Colonial, on the other hand, shows to best advantage when planted with contrasting colors that highlight its architectural details.

A gray-blue, postwar rambler, for example, would be most effectively integrated into the landscape when surrounded by plantings of muted green, blue, and white variations, accented, perhaps, with soft yellow flowers. In contrast, a white antebellum-style mansion with classical columns might be more effectively highlighted by dark green, formal plantings, which would complement its architecture. These rules are not rigid, however. A large pot of Melianthus major, with its bold, architectural leaves of soft blue green, would blend equally well with the formal white columns of the house. Likewise, adding purple-tinted foliage plants to the gray-blue rambler might make for a successful accent, so long as the yellow flowers weren’t too strident. white antebellum mansion, although planted with a narrow range of greens, would benefit from a contrast of textures such as tightly formed, finely clipped boxwood against the filigreed, feathery texture of a fern or the broad, glossy sheen of a hosta.

How to Protect Your Plants When Painting

If you’ve decided to paint your house, planning ahead is key to keeping your plants in good shape. Here are some tips from professional painters.

1. Use a cloth dropcloth or bedsheet to cover your plants and shrubs. Plastic, especially black plastic, will cook plants quickly.

2. Water your plants before covering them. Your plantings will quickly dehydrate if they are covered up for long periods of time in the hot sun. Don’t overwater, however, or the ground will become too soft to support the painters’ ladders.

3. Outline small plants with stakes underneath the sheets, so that you won’t forget where the plants are and walk over them.

4. To pull a shrub away from the house, drape it in a dropcloth or bedsheet and use the cloth or sheet to pull it gently out of the way. Then wrap and secure it with a rope or cord tied to stakes or to a nearby fence. Wrapping a shrub in a rope or cord alone may damage it. Orange plastic barricade fencing (the sort carried by most home renovation stores) makes a lightweight and easy-to-cut alternative.

5. Remember your neighbors’ plants. This is especially important if you are spraying paint. If it’s windy, cover your neighbors’ plantings to protect them from drifting paint. A little prevention goes a long way in keeping up friendly relations.

6. Plants underneath scaffolding need protection, too. A light cover will catch the worst drips.

7. If you’re doing a lot of scraping, catch the paint chips. You can do this by stapling or taping a canvas cloth to the side of the house. If you empty the cloth frequently, before it becomes too heavy, you should be able to prevent most of the chips from falling onto the plants or into the soil.


Contrast in the garden is crucial, whether it comes from leaf texture, color, or form. Plantings that are overly harmonious become monotonous. For example, the gray-blue rambler’s plantings would benefit from the dramatic contrast of textures of a spiky yucca juxtaposed with a similarly colored but more finely textured juniper. And the

The next time you are considering repainting your house, think seriously about your garden’s color scheme and how it will work with the house. Don’t be afraid to make changes in your garden. As it grows and evolves, a garden needs periodic editing anyway, and if you edit with both plant and house colors in mind, the results can be spectacular.

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