Friday, June 7, 2013

Contrasting Colors: Flowers and Foliage In The Garden.

Five different Hostas, Epimedium, a chartreuse Heuchera and some
dwarf evergreens provide a broad range of analogous colors and
and some variable foliage textures and shapes.  ©2013 BDG
While it is hard at this time of year to pause and appreciate plants and gardens, for fear of being buried in weeds and new growth, I think this is the best time to see gardens before the onslaught of heat and bugs.  The colors are so rich from the cooler weather and spring moisture, and the plants are full of energy from their spring growth spurts.

By now the spring bulbs are gone and the first round of early perennials are finished and there is lots of work to do in the garden to cut back, weed, stake, weed, sow and of course weed.

The ground foliage of the Alchemilla and a wonderful spreader whose
name escapes me really help to show off the weeping Japanese Maple,
and the foliage of the ground covers contrast nicely too.  ©2013 BDG
While flowers are always an integral part of a garden, they don't have to be the only part to provide interest throughout the season.  I love putting together plants with varying textures, leaf shapes and leaf colors to provide contrast and interest.  The great part about this design principle is that the benefits last all season, rather than the relatively short time you get from flowers.  There are endless flower combinations you can use to bring stunning color to the garden, but often they only last for a few weeks until the next one comes along, and sometimes people just don't have the time or space to nurse their gardens to this level of achievement.

First flower on my Nicotiana contrasting with a
pale purple Verbena.  ©2013 BDG
Contrasts can be drastic with complimentary colors like chartreuse Alchemilla (Lady's Mantle) flowers in front of a purple/red dissected Japanese Maple or they can be subtle variations of green from several different plants.  Contrasts in the form of different leaf shapes and leaf textures are also dramatic and can help to reveal an individuals plants characteristics as it is seen in contrast with another.

People have written books and defined their careers (Gertrude Jekyll)on the subject of color, so I won't pretend to offer anything definitive here.  

If you look at the color wheel, you can see that the greatest contrast comes from colors on opposite sides of the wheel and these are considered complimentary colors.  Yellow/purple, orange/blue and green/red are ones commonly used in gardens and they tend to provide 'pop'.  These complimentary colors are seen in several of the images on this page.  

On the other hand for a gentler, less jarring approach using analogous colors that are adjacent to each other on the wheel will provide a more soothing and subtle look.  The yellow and green foliage image on the top is an example of using analogous colors.  I find that these subtleties show best in shaded gardens where the light isn't so harsh as to obscure the differences.

I think the most important advice is to use those colors and color combinations that appeal to you.  There are general rules, but in gardening, I feel that these rules should be constantly broken, because at the end of the day you are living in your garden, not your neighbor or some colorist who said that Aubergine, Black and Chartreuse are the 'hot' colors.  I just made that last part up.

When visiting a nursery I will often gather several plants together to see how they look, but one of the best ways to see how combinations work is to visit other gardens.

Here are some great ones in the area:

This is more of a foliage contrast with the dissected leaves of the big
Aruncus and smaller Astile contrasting with the scalloped leaves
of the Ligularia and the Alchemilla.  The color contrast of the reddish
Ligularia really sets the other green plants off and keeps the bed
from feeling so... green.  ©2013 BDG
A new plant called Alchepeta, combining the flowers of Alchemilla
and Nepeta.  Another contrast of complementary colors. ©2013 BDG
'Niobe' Clematis flowers really pop off the green foliage.  ©2013 BDG


  1. I'm big on orange/blue in my sunny borders. I also like a lot of yellow. I then mix in some white to calm things down, and a big purple/deep pink joe pye weed to keep things interesting.

    1. I love orange, but I find a lot of people have negative knee jerk reactions. Sometimes a container with orange will ease them into appreciating its power.

  2. Perfect advice. I change my combos with annuals yearly but love the ones I have created with perennials. And depending on the timing of the blooms it changes.

    1. Best laid plans can always be compromised with weather. I try to change up annuals but I get into combos that I like. Sometimes that special plant will help me break-out.