Planting for color is a complex subject that can be intimidating. The key thing to remember is that color is a gift to revel in, not a problem to be solved—in fact, creative accidents can be the best way forward. Here are some starting points to inspire.


They say: “...the segregation of blue flowers is a mistake. They, more than any others, need the flash of scarlet, the cloud of white, the drift of apricot or buff to kindle them into life.” (Louise Beebe Wilder, Colour in My Garden)

Debrief: The range of blue is enormous, from uplifting summer skies to melancholy mists. Think of the number of mascot flowers that are blue—Texas bluebonnets, California ceanothus, Swiss gentians, English bluebells—this color carries emotional heft. Gertrude Jekyll used blue to create the illusion of greater depth in the same way that landscape painters use misty-blue mountains, so blues were always at the most distant end of her flower borders.

Photo by: Andrea Jones. Photo by: Clive Nichols.

A color moment: The combination (above) of the blue spikes of Veronica spicata mingled with yellow Achillea ‘Coronation Gold’ is an example of the way a yellow “throw” creates a sparkle that blue by itself could not. Try pink, cream and silver for the same effect.

Perfect plants: The Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia, above) and English delphiniums are classic examples of true blue flowers, but both are tricky to grow. Look to amsonias, lupines, ceanothus, salvias, phlox and other American natives for easy blues.


They say: “Provided that one does not run the idea to death, and provided one has enough room, it is interesting to make a one-color garden.” (Vita Sackville West, creator of Sissingshurst garden, England)

Debrief: Little did VSW realize that with this suggestion she would launch the cult of the white garden, a simple idea endlessly reinvented by designers keen to show off their paces. A white garden, just like the little black dress on the catwalk, spells style. Emotionally, white may evoke associations with peace and purity, but visually it is a prickly customer that commands attention. Small white flowers woven among colors can give a lift, but a block of white creates too strong a contrast that stops the eye. The key to working with all white is to isolate it (the Sissinghurst garden is entirely enclosed).

Photo by: Michael Jenson. Photo by: Michael Jenson.

A color moment: If you can’t get to Sissinghurst, the silver garden at Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania, by Isabelle Greene, which uses a palette of arid and succulent plants, is outstanding (

Perfect plants: At the Juntunen garden, Washington (above), Rosa mulliganii and regal lilies are classic choices.


They say: “Everyone knows that red reads in-your-face—and that is a very good place for it.” (Nori Pope, Color By Design)

Debrief: Energy, passion, power—associations with red are strong stuff. Some gardeners feel timid about using it, but red is not necessarily aggressive if you mix it with fresh green foliage. Red sits opposite green on the color wheel, and thus is its complementary color. In the garden, where a green canvas is a given, the effect is of popping energy and pizzazz. Red attracts attention, but works best at mid- to close range because on the whole it absorbs light and will be lost in a shady border or at a distance.

Photo by: Clive Nichols. Photo by: Clive Nichols.

A color moment: The borders of Hidcote Manor, England, designed by anglophile American Laurence Johnson, set the standard. Every year the public garden of Chanticleer in Philadelphia creates hot borders using different annuals and tropicals (see

Perfect plants: In her garden above, Clare Matthews uses a red-painted pot filled with black mondo grass as the centerpiece of a border of red ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias and red lilies with black gravel and dark foliage for contrast. Crocosmia masoniorum (above) is a stalwart of the red border.


They say: “Dying in an interesting way is just as important as living.” (Piet Oudolf)

Debrief: Brown may not feature on the color wheel, but once frost sets in, shades of brown, along with silver and gray, are the flattering neutrals that the well-dressed grass or perennial will be wearing. The popularity of ornamental grasses especially has raised consciousness of the glowing, mellowing effects of brown, especially when backlit by low winter sun. For the wistfully inclined gardener (think of Keats’ “mists of mellow fruitfulness,” etc.), fall is the best time of year in the garden, and shades of brown, from russet to hay, butterscotch to toast, cappuccino to chestnut, are what put the nuance into the season.

Photo by: Clive Nichols. Photo by: Andrew Lawson.

A color moment: Visit the Chicago parks for the burnished grasses of Oehme, van Sweden at the Botanic Garden, Piet Oudolf’s work at the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.

Perfect plants: The bronze spiky forms of New Zealand flax punctuate the above winter border of tall pampas grasses, miscanthus and pennisetum. The latest trendy deep bronze and “chocolate” plants evoke the luxury and sumptuous qualities of brown—try Helianthus annuus ‘Velvet Queen’ (above).


They say: “The true worth of green lies in its refreshing quality and in the shades, tones and textures that change it so much.” (Jill Billington, Color Your Garden)

Debrief: There are so many green gardens, so diverse in concept and geography—Japanese moss gardens, French parterres of box and grass, tropical jungles, informal conifer gardens. Green restores the senses in a way we take for granted, but designers should pay attention: In shade, lime green or chartreuse will sparkle and light the darkest places. In both formal and informal gardens, green provides the architecture: hedges, trees, grass—the shapes and volumes can be soft and naturalistic or crisp and linear. Late in the season when everything else has collapsed, clipped evergreen shapes hold a garden together.

Photo by: Alan and Linda Dietrick. Photo by: Susan A. Roth.

A color moment: Mount Cuba Center in Delaware, dedicated to the native wildflowers of the Piedmont region (see, offers impressionistic variations on the shady woodland garden using palest tones of yellow, ink and blue.

Perfect plants: Dan Hinkley’s rain forest near Seattle (above) goes tropical with hardy bananas. Asarum europaeum (above) has deep green leaves that shine in the shade.


They say: “Yellow is highly visible, which makes many people nervous...” (Christopher Lloyd, Colour for Adventurous Gardeners)

Debrief: Yellow has attracted more than its fair share of controversy. In the fifties it was unpopular with modernists, who regarded it as jarring. And as Christopher Lloyd points out, there are snobbish overtones to yellow prejudice, at least in England: “Yellow in gardens is the people’s colour.” For that reason alone, there are gardeners who ban yellow from the border. It is also associated with sickliness, i.e., the chlorophyll deficiency that causes yellowing of the leaves.

Photo by: John Glover.

Photo by: John Glover.

A color moment: Rosemary Verey’s gorgeous golden chain tree tunnel at Barnsley House launched a thousand imitators (see Crathes Castle, Scotland, has a little known Golden Garden which is a virtuoso performance in the key of yellow (see

Perfect plants: The borders of Hadspen House, England, gardened by Canadians Nori and Sandra Pope, show how color harmonies work—this tapestry of lupines, roses, senecio, verbascum and grasses creates an uplifting sunshine. Dahlias are always good for a shot of solid color. Above: ‘Claire de Lune’.


They say: “People often expect me to look like Morticia.” (Karen Platt, Black Magic and Purple Passion)

Debrief: A color much debated (does black exist in nature?), the appeal of dark burgundy, deep maroon and glossiest black/purple foliage and flowers is a recent craze set to become a classic. Much credit should go to English plantswoman Karen Platt, whose offbeat obsession is now a plant collection (“Black Magic and Purple Passion,” from Proven Winners) and a book. Black works both as a harmonious element and as a dizzying contrast: Use black plants to extend the darkest tones of red or purple, and provide velvety depths to a fiery foreground. For high contrast, pair it with gold or chartreuse foliage and pale pink or baby-blue flowers to inject drama into what would otherwise be a routine exercise. “The big no-no is to underplant with white gravel or stone chippings,” warns Platt.

Photo by: Andrea Jones. Photo by: Clive Nichols.

A color moment: The above medal-winning garden at Chelsea 2004 paired a dark Japanese maple with a foreground of mondo grass, threaded with red, red roses and sparkling alumroot (heuchera).

Perfect plants: Take a Gothic approach to spring with black parrot tulips (pictured above).

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