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Colour – symphony or screech?


 A few years ago when my sisters said that they were going to come over to France for a couple of days, I jumped at the chance to show them what I had been up to in my rather rampageous Normandy garden.

In the event, they found out why this part of Europe is so green – the rainstorms verged on the biblical and the howling gales made Caroline feel she was back at home in Scotland..
In the four minutes or so that it wasn’t actually pelting, we wandered about discussing the fairly fundamental question of which plants look good together and which don’t.
I’m not as expert as Louise when it comes to shape and textures combinations as you’ll see from her Great Plants this Month column today but I’m constantly tinkering with combinations of plant colour.

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ with Physocarpus ‘Lady in Red’

An example: bronze fennel leaves looked great in new borders I was developing of mauve, pink and purple flowers, but when its yellow flowers unfurled, it looked ghastly.  So the fennel had to go. (Personal gripe – it’s the sort of consideration that NEVER seems to be taken into account in a Chelsea Show Garden or even a Garden Makeover Programme.) Then, by dumping the pale pinks as well, and replacing them with orange crocosmias (‘Tangerine Queen’ mostly) and orange roses (‘Super’, ‘Fellowship’, ‘Westerland’) – bingo! The purples were lifted by the colour contrast and began to sing, instead of being deadened by the pinks and yellows.

Rosa ‘Westerland’ with Verbena bonariensis

Reds can also be very tricky.  Catalogues and plantlists have some funny ideas about what it is, ranging from a Plummy Magenta (doesn’t that sound like an acquaintance of Bertie Wooster’s!) to Hazelnut Brown (definitely that annoying girl behind me in Class 3B). Some reds have yellow in their makeup, others have pink, and photos often lie.  Whites can lighten colour-effects, or punch a hole right through them.  I find true blues really difficult to place with other plants perhaps because they are so rare in the plant-world that they always look artificial. I accidentally put Rosa ‘Penny Lane’ with a purple vine, and they looked great!
Do I understand why this is? No, not really, though many swear that it is all to do with the colour -wheel where the idea is to plant neighboring shades together or colours directly opposite to one another…I think.  My method is a great deal more haphazard than that, as my critical  sisters were generously eager to point out at regular intervals.


It’s true, after conceding the obvious – that Elaine’s Normandy garden is bloom-azing – Laura and I were hugely relieved to find the odd colour atrocity in the undergrowth. What possessed Elaine to plant the egg-yolk yellow ligularia in her pink and white cottage garden? She falteringly explained that she’d ‘plonked’ it there as a stop gap and then forgotten about it until it flowered, but we didn’t let her off with that.

Ligularia in Elaine’s pink and white cottage garden – what was she thinking?

But the old girl did raise quite a good point about the duplicity of copper fennel in producing that cloying yellow flower head. Ligularia, hostas, I find they’re all capable of sabotaging your colour scheme. Everything is going splendidly well in your planting scheme with some funky leaf shapes and cool greens working as a great foil for everything else and then, basically…… Donald Trump turns up at your hen party……a ghastly, clashing flower head pops up and ruins the whole thing.

Actually, that yellow ligularia is a pig of a colour to blend anywhere in the garden. I have the same problem with the slightly insipid pink of nerines in early autumn. I find the faded purple of Stachys macrantha is another colour you don’t want to wear to the ball, the leaves are great but I’ve never found any planting companion that makes its flowers ‘sing’ – it gives more of an emphysemic wheeze. I’m pretty sure its precise shade of insipidness doesn’t appear on a colour wheel, so all suggestions welcomed.
Laura Warren

I am much lower down the evolutionary scale than Elaine when it comes to colour combinations, although considerably higher than Caroline obviously. Elaine will dig up and move a perfectly happy plant just because there is a chromatographic nuance in its colour spectrum that doesn’t have a synergistic effect on its neighbour. I am generally just happy if it grows.

I tried to pay attention when she was explaining how the colour wheel had dictated the planting scheme in her tapestry beds, but there were so many distractions in her Normandy retreat.There are nesting storks in her garden, for goodness sake! Even her French neighbours get excited about them.

Laura’s attention is wandering during a lesson from big sister

I do make some attempt to group my plants by colour but in a fairly rudimentary way, so hot colours go in a bed together, whilst others have a paler theme, but I think I know why Elaine gets much more than exercised by colour palettes than me. Her Normandy garden needs to really perform in July and August, when they decamp there for several weeks for endless house parties and garden openings (how the other half lives….) but when Brexit regulations kick in (no more than 90 days in every 180) it’s back to their garden in Eastbourne.  

So Elaine has most of her plant eggs in one basket for the summer crescendo, whereas I want to step out into my garden on any day of the year and find some treasure to lift my spirits, so successional planting is much higher up the agenda. Although I may well have a Plummy Magenta and a Hazelnut Brown, there is little chance of a personality clash, as one will flower in April, the other in September, so they’ll never meet!

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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.

4 replies on “Colour – symphony or screech?”

Enjoyed reading your blog, as always and lovely to get a few glimpses of the Normandy garden which is always fabulous. The yellow ligularia (whatever that is!) at least highlighted all the colour contrasting that WAS satisfying to your flowery souls so it didn’t grow in vain. Hope the biblical rainstorms and howling gales didn’t wreak too much havoc.

Lovely to hear from you, Yve. The gales and rainstorms did certainly flatten things somewhat but of course one has to admit that the ground really needed the rain!

I’ve never been able to grow scented honeysuckle successfully in my Shropshire. The latest one planted on spring this year at the front of the house against a south facing wall looked thrived for the first few months but then list most of its leaves and looks dreadful. This is despite mulching, regular watering and feeding. What am I doing wrong? Roses in the same location are thriving. Help!

Hi Jane, Elaine here. Hmmm well, I think it might be that you’re being too nice to it! Honeysuckles are basically woodland plants that are happiest in semi-shade, where they can scramble up and have just their flower-heads in the sun but their roots shaded. I did have a honeysuckle in a prime hot spot years ago, but it was a miserable magnet for aphids, some kind of sooty mould and powdery mildew, no matter how much I fed and watered the thing. If you’re willing to have another bash at it, try planting it somewhere a bit shadier, and think ‘woodland’ – dampish but not soggy, rich soil which includes leaf-mould, and a chance for it to reach the sunshine if it chooses to get going. Good luck!

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