The choice of color is often the worst design dilemma for most people; for me it’s a piece of cake. One of the first gardens I ever created was built around a bluestone walkway (read about the origin of that here). There were three elements affecting the color palette, the strongest of which was, you guessed it, the bluestone. Once I had chosen that particular shade of blue the only choice left, in keeping with good design, was to stay within that color range or choose its opposite. The two remaining design factors made that choice effortless.
The bluestone is formal; the client is formal. The most formal color? White. In addition, the client works seventy hours a week; the only time he’s really going to see this garden is late into the evening. The color most visible in low light? White. What looks great with white? Blue. What looks great with bluestone? Blue. What color was absolutely made for sunlight? Blue. The client has a blue and white garden.
Staying true to our color choices is where most of us falter. When I say blue I mean blue, not purple or lavender or mauve. White is white, not yellow tinged with cream, not even the very palest of shell pink. When you lose definition, you lose contrast; when you lose contrast, you lose design. You may have a very pretty assemblage of things, but you don’t have design. It’s brutal, I know, to walk away from the most astonishing flower you’ve ever seen just because it’s a shade or two off hue; do it anyway.
I read all these books and hear all these designers talking about color selection being the palette with which you paint the garden. I disagree, because I think of color in intimate, emotional terms. Blue is inviting and serene; it’s the sound of your child laughing as you play at the water’s edge. White is a radiant seaside Victorian, painted wicker on the veranda luminous in the moonlight. Orange is a bonfire at the rim of a frozen pond, cold cheeks and hot embers. Red is scarlet lipstick against pale skin all in black; it’s Bogart and Bacall and killer dialogue. Green is the branch of a tree dipping into the river as you drift downstream, the paddle stilled for just a moment as you reach up to draw your hand along the leaves. Lavender is a field in the south of France, bread and wine and heady perfume. Purple is the final reflection of rimrock at twilight, coyotes howling in the distance as you make love in the warm desert wind.
I designed a garden several years ago for my chiropractor, a charming man who tolerated my perpetual ruination of his handiwork with relative good humor. The doctor and his wife lived in the upper half of a large duplex on a busy city street; his office was on the first floor. Color became key to creating not just a look, but a feel to this new landscape. It needed to be vibrant and welcoming.
The couple early on developed a rare and very clear division of territory; the public areas were his, the courtyard hers. This left me free to design for one person, and one purpose, at a time. To make choices that worked for this property, I started with the basics. What did I know about the site? It was a large, square, white building newly wrapped, front and side, by a ramp for handicapped access. The ramp added an element of architectural pizzazz, but it too was white. The only dampening of this luster came from a rather sickly maple at the edge of the sidewalk, which was soon removed, leaving the property all white, all the time.
What did I know about the doctor? He was reserved in public, but deliciously funny in private. Danced well enough to compete; preferred the samba, notoriously sensual in its movement. Member not just of a healing profession, but of an holistic healing profession, which has a different sensibility. And avid rosarian, which meant that he adored, and had, roses in every conceivable color.
In this case, white was not even in the running for plant materials. In fact any pale color, with that backdrop and that amount of sun, would fade to nothing. To achieve contrast, I needed to go as far in the opposite direction as the province of flowers allows: not truly black, but the darkest purple I could find. Having decided that, I went looking for its mate and there, in the back yard, I happened upon orange rose. It wasn’t apricot, it wasn’t salmon, it was orange. I flipped. Rose petals in hand I wandered the nursery, laying in the fragrant heads of Hidcote lavender and the fat, full blossoms of Jackmani clematis. I know, I know, blue is the true opposite of orange; I don’t care. Purple and orange sends me, blue and orange just looks like a Mets uniform. The fact that they were my ex-husband’s favorite baseball team may have a tiny little something to do with it. Look, I told you color was emotional.*
So now we have roses in tangerine, and coral, and Mandarin silk. We have Hermés boxes and frosty bottles of Orange Crush. We have Concord grapes, cool to the tongue, and hand-painted plums on Limoges plates. We have Purple Haze and Twilight Time. We have orange daylilies to inject the blood of the commoner, and Black Knight delphinia to guard the roses fair. We have a low-growing, sterile variety of woolly lamb’s ear to play off lavender’s gray-green foliage and the gray-green leaves of the flowering crab. We have design and dialogue. We have contrast and character and man! do we have color.
We also have people smiling as they come up the ramp, people who are otherwise in pain. Ex-husband jokes aside, color has a profound impact on our spirits. I didn’t wear red until I was forty-three, undoubtedly because my mother always insisted I should. It started with red lipstick and a postman who was ridiculously appealing; it went on from there. The color, not the man who was, sadly, married. Anyway… the point is that it changed my perception of myself, which changed how I presented myself, which changed everything. It has become the color everybody associates with me, even though I’m most often in black, so apparently I now sport a red attitude no matter what shade of lipstick I wear.
You’ve noticed by now that I tend to limit color selection within the confines of each garden space; I do this primarily because it makes the space look larger. Continuity of color allows the eye to take in the garden as a whole, without interruption. I can punch that monochromatic scheme here and there with its color contrast, and still have a unified field. I can remove the contrast if I up the ante in foliage, and still have visual interest. From a practical standpoint, it’s a great system for people who tend to lose track of precisely what they planted.
Equally sophisticated is planting within a short range of tints, like pink to magenta. In this case, I would skip the contrast and simply allow the colors to flow, each into the other. I’ve done this in linear fashion, from pale to deep or throughout the space, at random, with the same success. Again, the eye sees all of this as one because, with this scheme, we’re really just playing with different saturations of the same color.
Riskier, but a great deal of fun, is a planting that runs the gamut of all hot, or all cool colors. This style requires a lot of space to be effective; the stroke must be bold for the impact to be perceived.
How do you choose color? Go back to the beginning. Who are you, and what do you want to say? When you have the answers to those two questions, the colors will choose you.
*the original of this article was written as part of my six-week design course syllabus; this many more years removed from the ex, I find that I’m not so dismissive of blue and orange~I do note that my preference tends to be more along the lines of Tiffany blue and Hermés orange rather than the Mets combo, but it’s progress, no?