Some of the most striking gardens aren’t a riot of multiple colors but a carefully curated assemblage of hues. Using foliage and flowers, gardeners can create drama and artistry.
A lake of blue salvia, perhaps. A swath of feathery green grass. The idea is to mass-plant so the color becomes a living brush stroke along the landscape.
Architect Peter Marino used the technique on his 12-acre property in Southampton, New York. Among the apple orchards, art objects and hundreds of evergreens, his garden includes a “color wheel,” with purple flowers at the north end, pink at the south, and red and mixed hues to the east and west.
Yellow is off on its own.
“The yellow garden is a separate, one-acre ‘room,’ bordered by European chestnuts and George Peabody arborvitae,” Marino writes in his new book, “The Garden of Peter Marino” (Rizzoli). “I don’t care for yellow flowers mixed with other colors, so I planted them all together in what is intended to be one big explosion of color.”
Melissa Ozawa, features and garden editor for Martha Stewart Living, says that when designing a color block garden, “don’t just think about flower color, but look at foliage too. For example, if you’re going to create a blue-themed border or bed, opt for plants with blue-green leaves like ‘Hadspen Blue’ hosta, silvery ghost fern, or ‘Frosty Blue’ agave, rather than varieties with golden or yellow undertones.”
Include a few versions of your color, she says, to keep things from being too literal.
“If you want a yellow garden, don’t just stick to the one shade of yellow,” she says. “Choose a mix of hues, and even add a pop of orange, to keep things interesting. Choose vibrant chartreuse or yellow-green foliage, and look for cultivars with variegation, such as hakonechloa grass or drought-tolerant euphorbia.”
Or instead of sticking with one color, consider a theme.
“For a sophisticated and romantically moody dark garden, combine deep purple, brown, and burgundy foliage plants like heuchera, cimcifuga, elderberry, and elephant ears with dark red, burgundy, and purple flowers, such as ‘Queen of Night’ tulips, ‘Black Barlow’ columbine, Knautia macdonica, and ‘Windsor’ sweet peas,” says Ozawa.
For those with green thumbs but little outdoor space, similar effects can be created using planters, baskets and pots.
Better Homes & Gardens’ April issue suggests loading up a cayenne-hued container with “hot”-hued heuchera, croton, Swiss chard, bloodleaf and Fireworks fountain grass. A deep purple basket gets dramatically dressed with the rich grape-y leaves of oxalis, Purple Flash peppers and Persian shield.
Or marry a couple of complementary colors, like greens and golds. Dwarf lemon cypress, Carolyn’s Gold mini hostas and All Gold Japanese forest grass positively glow in a bold and brawny chrome yellow ceramic pot.
Says the magazine’s editor, Kathy Barnes: “When you use a narrow color palette — for plants and container — it’s nearly impossible to end up with an arrangement that doesn’t look sophisticated and pulled-together.”
As you plan a color block garden, keep in mind your hardiness zone and seasonal fluctuations. Experts at your local garden center should be helpful.
“Go equipped with photos of the space you’re planting, and know what kind of light your plot gets,” advises Ozawa.
“As with any border or bed, make sure you vary texture and plant heights, and consider the bloom time of each plant you’re adding. You don’t want a spectacular show in spring only to have it peter out and stop blooming once the weather warms up in summer.”