Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Color Wheel Goes Round And Round

A number of years ago a client asked me to design a large perennial border at her home in Darien, Connecticut. While there was nothing unusual about her request, I was somewhat taken aback by her choice of color scheme. The client, a prominent New York physician with very particular taste, indicated that her garden should be composed of exclusively red and yellow flowers. This was in the mid-90’s and at the time I was designing in mostly pinks, whites, blues, and soft yellows. Only rarely did I incorporate reds or oranges and then purely for shock value. In fact most well known gardening catalogues like White Flower Farm featured predominately pastel hues. This of course predated the resurgence of interest in tropical plants like dahlias and cannas, most of which had fallen out of fashion following the Victorian era.

Always up for a challenge, I set to work on my client’s garden. With her approval I expanded the palette somewhat, eventually incorporating orange and dark purple. And in addition to flowering plants, I added a number of species with brightly colored foliage, including a low hedge comprised of alternating groups of dwarf, red and yellow leaved barberry (a plant that unfortunately is now listed as an invasive). To my surprise I was exceedingly pleased with the outcome. So much so, in fact, that some years later I installed the hot colored garden at my home here in Seekonk.

I realized in the course of designing the Darien garden, and in subsequent years of practice and observation, that the relative success of a design is not necessarily dependent on the color scheme one chooses. After all, color preference is decidedly subjective. It is crucial, however, to consciously decide on a color scheme and adhere to that selection. And while there are many rules, color wheels etc. that may be used as a guide, the truth is that almost any number of colors can be combined successfully. Lately I’ve been fantasizing about creating an orange and magenta garden, but haven’t found the right location yet.

When it comes to color choice, I often ask my clients to consider the mood they would like to create. Pastels or monochromatic color schemes tend to produce peaceful landscapes. Alternatively, hot or contrasting colors command attention and generate visual excitment. It should come as no surprise that Zen gardens, which are made for meditation, are characteristically devoid of color, relying exclusively on the muted tones of sand and rock.

At my home in Seekonk, I am orchestrating an evolving color scheme. The entry garden is composed of welcoming colors; pale yellows, pinks and blues. On the other side of the house the plantings surprise and titillate with a contrasting palette. Reds, oranges, and yellows dominate and their juxtaposition is visually stimulating. Leaving this burst of color behind, a short flight of stairs leads down to a blue and white garden. Its atmosphere is restful and somehow the colors seem to make the air feel ten degrees cooler. It is here, soothed by the sound of water splashing in the lily pond, that guests tend to gather on hot summer days.

Here in Seekonk the daffodils are just starting to pop and many of the perennials are showing signs of growth. The new beds that lead out into the field are edged and raked smooth in preparation for seeding annuals next month. I've started dividing some of my perennials, the roses are fed and once it stops raining I'll trim the butterfly bushes and caryopteris. Even though I didn't mulch the gardens last fall, so far I haven't noticed any casualties, which is a big relief. The handful of goldfish, that I tossed into the farm pond last spring, have multiplied at an alarming rate and I can only hope that the resident great blue heron decides to dine at my table soon.