Growbag Blog

Colour in the Garden – Harmony or Contrast


It’s quite a responsibility being the only person in the family with good taste. Today’s blog will serve to demonstrate this fact admirably.

As in life I always strive to create cameos of understated charm and harmony in the garden; Elaine’s patch generally looks like she’s employed Prue Leith as a colour consultant and TBH Caroline is just delighted to get anything to grow, no matter what the colour scheme.

Being more of a botanist than a gardener doesn’t mean I can’t spot pleasing colour combination of plants when I see them.

Recent trips to Oxford Botanic Gardens have thrown up several delightful partnerships which I’d like to emulate. The first is a simple mix of two related species to create a synergy in which they both look prettier than when grown alone.

Sweet pea
The scattered sky blue dots of the Lathyrus sativa lift the moody blues and purples of the Lathyrus odoratus ‘Matucana’ – very clever.

Next it was some sultry foliage bringing some drama to a rose.

Cercis Forest pansy
The rich purple of the Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ seem to enhance and deepen the colour of Rosa ‘Oxford Physic’ planted beneath

Pairing a good strong colour with white is about as daring as I like to go with my colour combinations and of course you need to plan for them to be in flower concurrently, and I saw another great example at Oxford.

Agapanthus and Crinum powelli Oxford
I was struck by this late summer combination of royal blue agapanthus and Crinum powelli ‘Album’ outside the conservatory at OBGA

That’s it for the stylish choices as it’s over to my sisters now. Elaine is bound to bring up the dreaded colour wheel, and I’m afraid that having to look at some of Caroline’s random combinations, (it’s her Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’ against the vermilion rose in our feature pic 🤮) would keep me awake at night.


‘Good taste’, Laura? More like ‘dreary conformity’. The problem is that Laura’s never learnt to live a little. A garden without contrast and juxtaposition is a garden without character or drama to my mind.

I am as guilty as anyone of buying lovely plants on impulse (Laura has Olympic medals in it, by the way). But once I’ve got my prize home, I ponder very carefully about where it should go in the garden with regard to colour. Will it combine or contrast pleasingly with existing plant-tones? Or grate with them, setting my teeth on edge? Brick-red with knicker-pink….shudder-worthy. Royal-blue and peach……mmm, it works.

Peach-coloured gladioli can make sweet music with royal-blue Agapanthus

The colour-wheel is used extensively by photographers, interior designers and professional garden designers alike. There is a lot of theory based on it but basically using adjacent colours creates a harmonious ‘tasteful’ effect, while a combo of opposite colours (‘cool’ and ‘hot’ shades) wakes everyone up.

A (hot) yellow rose against the (cool) lavender-coloured flowers of a clematis (C jouiniana praecox) – a very satisfying contrast

I prefer to trust my own eyes and reactions – you don’t have to have a wheel to clarify the colour effects you like. Why not steal an idea from good old Vita Sackville-West and carry a few flowers from one plant and try them in a vase or as a bunch in various places against other plants?
Let me show you what I mean:
Orange with pink – a combo that may give you a pain behind the eyes

OUCH! The orange roses are having a massive row with Rose ‘Ballerina’ – and both of them are losers!

But put orange against sea-green, and something rather lovely happens.

The sea-green leaves of Melianthus can take a zinging colour like orange…

All this will be WAY above Caroline’s head, whose idea of subtle garden colour theory is neatly summed up with a pic of her favourite sunflower ‘Magic Roundabout’ – I ask you.


Heavens’ sake, Elaine sounds more like a London branding agency than a hobby gardener.

What’s the matter with plonking a plant in where there’s a space and seeing what happens? If it looks ghastly (and here, I’ll see Elaine’s clashing roses and raise her my Rudbeckia and Rosa ‘Meteor’), well just make a note to move it in the Autumn. It’s not hard.

Oooft, when plonking goes bad. One of these is a definite for the ‘MUST MOVE’ notebook entry.

If I had to agree with either of them though, I’d go with Elaine’s approach rather than Laura’s dreary botanical preferences (if a plant turns out to be gaily colourful in Laura’s garden you know it’s on its way to Room 101).

So, developing Elaine’s theory, which has apparently taken her 40 years to research, and me literally minutes, my top tip would be to get some lime green going.

It’s the perfect foil for almost every other colour – I’m thinking Euphorbia characias  subsp. wulfenii; or hostas, say, ‘Velvet Moon’, or what about Physocarpus ‘Dart’s Gold’ or, unless you’re a snob like my sisters, go for good old Alchemilla mollis, it’s the most brilliant foil – in the garden or vase.

I snapped this fab combination during a visit to Broadwoodside – a wonderful private garden in East Lothian. Euphorbia and Cotinus – the smoke bush.

Even slightly icky plants (colour-wise) which in my book include Forsythia and Diascia personata undergo a Cinderella-like transformation against a lime-green backdrop. 

Note Bene: this doesn’t work so well for your wardrobe. Lime green will render you more Shrek than Cinderella, but dotting it around your garden gives you free rein to carry on plonking with style!

Louise always knows which plants go well together and has some suggestions for what to pair with her Great Plant this Month. Click on the box below to find out more.

More NB Elaine’s excited about a new addition to her Normandy garden – find out what it is here.

More NB If you’re not already a subscriber and you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

It’s been great to get a good few orders coming through for our shop this week. Being smaller, our stocks are generally still at last year’s prices – it’s proving popular with canny shoppers!

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

7 replies on “Colour in the Garden – Harmony or Contrast”

Love todays piece.
You always make me smile on a Saturday morning, but it was laugh out loud today – not something I’m usually good at pre 8am!

So you’ve already improved my health as well as my knowledge today.
Keep it coming please! And as colourful as you like.

A rainbow of good wishes to you all 3

Hi Miranda, Elaine here. What a lovely message to receive – thank you so much! It always encourages us hugely when people bother to let us know we are in the right track!

Hi Jackie, Elaine here. Thanks for writing in – yes, so irritating (and unexpected) when the least experienced gardener of the three of us comes up with best suggestion! 🤣

I love my Eryngium bourgattii ‘Oxford Blue’ – a mass from just one plant – next to a clump of Alchemilla mollis, which I know can be a thug but looks good in a vase with other flowers, even when I do it, not being any good at floral art! Note change of email address.

I love my Eryngium bourgatti ‘Oxford Blue’ beside Alchemilla mollis, which I know is a thug but looks great in a vase with other flowers, even when I put them together.( I am no use at floral art).
Note change of email address from

Hi Sally, I’ve just looked up Eryngium bourgatti ‘Oxford Blue’ – wow that’s some sea holly, a ‘stoter!’ I’m totally with you on floral art, and am constantly grateful that flowers nearly always look wonderful even though I’ve just put them in a vase as I cut them.
Sorry for delay in replying. Elaine and I’ve both had Covid this week (although about 1000 miles apart!) which has rather slowed us up, but bouncing back now. Lovely to get your message and hope you’re well. We’ve amended that email address and will send posts to your new one. Very best wishes, Caroline X (and the other two)

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