For many, one of the most fun parts of gardening is the use of color. But getting it right can be tricky. It’s gratifying if you do and frustrating if you don’t.
Success is not achieved simply by choosing plants with an array of colors that appeal to you. To complement each other, the plants must bloom at the same time. What’s more, the size and shape of the flowers and how they contrast with surrounding plants matters as much as color. Add to this complicated equation plant heights and foliage shapes and texture and the whole process can feel overwhelming.
However, there are a few simple guidelines you can use to achieve coordinated floral compositions.
Start with simple concepts
Think of garden design in terms of simple concepts layered on top of one another, such as repetition and contrast. For example, you may want to repeat the same plants through the whole bed, from one end to the other.
Or you may want to add plants that contrast in color or height. Tall plants often have bare “legs” that need covering by smaller species.
Look for both complementary and contrasting colors and flower types. Choose at least some long-blooming plants and those that bloom into the fall. Plant them closely enough so that at maturity, their foliage will just touch.
With annual plantings, space plants about 10 inches apart. Use compost and some organic fertilizer like feathermeal for lush, healthy plants. Use mulch for weed control and to save water.
Visit gardens for good ideas
Most gardeners benefit from examples to help them generate ideas, even though color preferences are highly individual and there is no right or wrong.
Years ago, I attended a lecture given by two (now-late) English gardening greats, Christopher Lloyd of the garden Great Dixter and Rosemary Verey of Barnsley House, both in England. Rosemary showed us slide after gorgeous slide of her garden and pressed us to stick to pastel hues and never combine yellow and pink. Christopher’s likewise beautiful slides of his garden showed yellow and pink flowers happily intermingled.
This May, I planted a small annual flower bed (2 feet by 25 feet) along one side of a parking area at a brewery in an industrial complex. I choose plants that have a long bloom season, are low-maintenance, have a big impact in terms of size and color, do well in the summer heat and are pollinator-friendly
First, I incorporated a lot of compost and some organic fertilizer in the very poor soil. I put in a drip system, using two lines of emitter tubing with emitters spaced at a 1-foot inline spacing and connected to a battery-powered timer. After planting, I mulched with compost to discourage weeds, prevent water evaporation and add to the soil fertility all season long.
The very back of the bed had four young hop plants growing on a hop string trellis. The bed was densely planted with two lines of plants. In the back row of the bed, I alternated big plants like the wild sunflowers Helianthus debilis ‘Pan’ (from the Southeast) and silver-leaf sunflower ‘Gold and Silver’ Helianthus argophyllus (from Texas). I also added a couple kiss-me-over-the-garden-gates (Polygonum orientale). All varieties can be purchased from Select Seeds.
In the front row, I interspersed zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Coral’ and orange cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus). All the plants were spaced about 10 inches apart, much closer than recommended. Though the footprint of the bed was very narrow, there was plenty of room for the plants to expand above it in height and width. I wanted the bed to overflow its narrow boundary with visual interest and flowers.
Now, in late summer, the bed is a wall of color from the ground to over 6 feet high. In contrast to typical sunflowers, the species I used are highly branched from the base — shrubby varieties with much smaller leaves. Each is adorned with a multitude of small flowers, very different from the usual single-stalk sunflowers.
The Helianthus debilis ‘Pan’ has green foliage, while the silver-leaf sunflower has distinctive white foliage with fine hairs. Both are topped by deep-to-clear yellow flowers.
Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate is about 6 feet tall so far and has bright green leaves and pink flowers on strongly arching flower stems. It is just coming into full flower and should grow 2 to 3 feet larger, with big arching stems. It will look great into the fall, taking over in size as the other plants reach their peak and decline.
In the foreground, the coral zinnias and burnt-orange cosmos make a richly saturated color scheme. The contrast of large and small flowers and the richly saturated hues and clear colors makes an engaging and lively composition. Did I mention the single-story metal-sided brewery building is painted bright blue?
I wasn’t sure any pollinators would find the flowers in the midst of such a dry and industrial expanse of land. But I discovered that many solitary (nondefensive) native bee species visit the flowers, which apparently offer a rich, ongoing treat of pollen and nectar.
Sunflowers are some of the very best flowers for bees. So easy to grow and very drought-resistant, these highly branched varieties bloom over a period of months, not weeks. After the flowers mature, goldfinches feast on the seeds, their antics and song a treat to watch and hear.
Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: [email protected], freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey.
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