Using plant colour
by David West Beale

I’m kicking off my new blog with a look at plant colour in the garden. 

I’m interested in how as designers and gardeners, we can use plant colour to stimulate mood, create illusion and encourage a sense of journey and place.

This is a huge and joyful subject, so in this post we shall take a look at just one colour group, the violets and blues. I’m looking to pick out a few examples of how this colour group can be manipulated by the designer and the qualities these colours can bring to your garden.

Myosotis Sylvatica
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Myosotis Sylvatica

Pictorial design vs horticulture

As horticulturalists we often think about arranging our gardens in terms of ‘what plant goes where’. By this I mean matching the cultivation requirements of the plant to the most appropriate spot in the garden. All very correct and diligent but not necessarily a route to the most exciting or emotive garden.

As designers we are often thinking more about what value a particular plant can bring in terms of visual appeal and emotional response, particularly in combination with other plants or elements in the garden.

Phlox divaricata – Polemoniaceae
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Phlox divaricata – Polemoniaceae
Lavender
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Lavender

An example of this might be say, planting phlox with lavender for colour effect. This may be frowned upon by the horticulturalist as phlox likes it cool and moist, while lavender likes it hot and dry. But by mulching and watering the phlox we could grow them both together. So as designers we are prepared to adjust our gardening habits, within reason, to allow a pleasing and successful picture to be painted.  

In fact, thinking about our design in terms of pictures, view points and vistas allows us to really start thinking about the composition and spatial arrangement of garden space. When we use plant colour to achieve these we move as close to actually painting as gardening can be.

So let’s sing the blues

We’ll take a look at those tones of colour falling in the blue and violet part of the spectrum.  

This colour group has its own nature, its own unique properties and human emotional associations, all of which can be harnessed by the designer.

Here are some of the most important of these properties. 

Deep distance - an illusion of space

Blue is the colour of distance, of mountains far away. Take a look on Google at Claude Lorrain’s painting Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia. The warm browns in the foreground give way to a blue mid ground then a silvery blue horizon. The effect is one of an infinity the viewer could almost step into. 

As garden designers we can also use this property to amplify the feeling of space in our garden. Think of bluebell woods and how they can seem limitless when the bluebells are in flower and the trees seem almost to float. 

A Bluebell Wood
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A Bluebell Wood

Gertrude Jekyll planted blues at the far end to heighten the sense of depth and distance of her outsize herbaceous borders. 

Creating mood

Bright blues lift the spirits like a summer sky, but it’s also no coincidence that this colour shares its name with the melancholy music genre of the Mississippi Delta – the blues. Misty soft blues may spread a wash of gentle melancholy over the garden. 

So blues come in two moods, happy and sad.

Aconitum napellus
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Aconitum napellus

Playing with light

So we have established two major groups for blue – those that are uplifting and those that encourage feelings of calm and introspection.

We can manipulate the plant colour in our design further by where we place our blue flowers in relation to light and shade and even time of day.

In shade, bright blues will dim and behave as melancholy blues. A great example could be myosotis which is a lively and cheerful sky blue in bright sun, but as the sun moves around the garden this blue will soften and provide an illusion of depth and distance in the late afternoon shade.

Similarly, a palette of hazy blues will be rich in tone under full sun but appear cooler and greyer in the shade. A good example here is the rich heavy violet-blue of lavender which can become very sombre on overcast days, whereas the clear blue of a cornflower becomes altogether more mysterious and cool in shade. 

Cornflowers
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Cornflowers

Juxtaposition and optical colour mixing

Ok, this is for me where things get really interesting as here there is great scope for experimentation.

We are looking at the illusion of colour, or in other words how the brain processes our experience of colour.  Our perception of colour can differ in response to which colours are placed side by side in our field of vision. 

Let’s do a quick exercise and take a look at these images: 

  • If you gaze at the blue with the orange square you will probably find that it appears brighter than the rectangle of blue on its own, even though they are in reality identical blues.
  • If you gaze at both the small orange squares you will probably find the orange square over the blue to be brighter than the small orange square over the orange background, even though the small orange squares are identical. 
Colour Test

These are examples of ‘optical colour mixing’ where the brain is creating a new shade or tone of colour because of the influence of the juxtaposed colour.

The visible effects of this image may seem subtle, but in the garden, carried across a much larger area than the computer screen, the influence can be much more dramatic. For those of us interested in plant colour they give some clues as to how we might place our flowers and foliage to manipulate their colour.

From this simple exercise we can see that to intensify a blue flower we may consider placing an orange plant next to it, and the orange can be substituted with yellow too. Van Gogh said ‘There is no blue without yellow and orange, and when you paint blue, paint yellow and orange as well.’ So if you want your blues to be the bluest of all, plant them with orange and yellow. White also serves to sharpen up neighbouring blue flowers.

Rudbeckias and Agapanthus
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Rudbeckias and Agapanthus

On the other hand, if we want to tone down an orange brick house we may not want to plant clear blue flowers in front.

Of course we may want a more subdued pallet. Placing a soft darker blue against green foliage can have the effect of dulling the blue. Consider instead using silver foliage as a foil as this will add depth to deeper blues.

Stachys and Ceanothus
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Stachys and Ceanothus

There are many combinations and ways to experiment with flower colour and in future posts we’ll take look at the other colour groups.  In the meantime a good starting point is to visit a well-stocked plant nursery and try different combinations in your trolley! 

So I hope you have enjoyed my first blog post.

 

Photo Credits