Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show on design strategies for small spaces. It’s always a bit hard for me to relax and enjoy the show when I know I have a talk coming up, so this year I played it smart. Flying in right before my presentation meant I had a full day and a half to view the show gardens and attend presentations after I spoke. For once, I was able to give my full attention over to new ideas.
Image courtesy of Billy Goodnick
The lesson for me this year was all about color. By far my favorite garden was Roman Holiday by the Washington Chapter of APLD. While the whole garden was well laid out, it was the sophisticated use of color in the plant palette that I found both engaging and inspiring. Coincidentally, during the show my co-author Rebecca Sweet gave two thought-provoking presentations on employing color theory to wake up a weary garden (she even used a color wheel in her presentation). The week after the show I attended an excellent presentation by Chris Grampp at Merritt College on the use of color in rendering. Clearly, the universe is telling me to brush up on my rusty color theory skills to get to the bottom of why the blue/purple/gold combination is so appealing.
There are many ways to combine color, but the above photo of Johannes Itten's color star points out two of the most effective techniques. One option that ensures a harmonious result is to focus on the inner, lightest color values on the wheel. As Chris put it in his lecture, if you washed all your clothes 200 times, they would eventually fade to the point where you could wear anything with anything. He followed this with the excellent example of Gertrude Jekyll, who relied on this approach to achieve a seamless color effect, despite filling her famous borders with an army of unique perennials. Lesson: there's a reason pastels are so popular in the garden (not to mention the top pick of new parents everywhere when it comes to choosing a soothing color scheme for the nursery).
The other option, and one that is used less commonly in garden design, is to focus on the colors at the darkest end of the spectrum, those which live on the outermost edge of the color wheel. Roman Holiday caught my eye because the designers chose this less traveled path. I found the tapestry of deep, blue-violets and blue-greens they created with their plant selection mesmerizing.
Another sophisticated way to combine color is via a split complementary scheme. In brief, instead of combining two complementary colors, such as red with green, a split scheme combines red with the colors to either side of its complement; in this case, yellow-green and blue-green. The result can be a combination that retains the vibrancy of a traditional complementary color scheme, but with more subtlety and refinement.
Split complementary color chart courtesy of Buzzle
In the case of Roman Holiday, I’m treating the yellow-gold of the stucco walls and the yellow accents of the Euphorbia and tulip blooms as the main color, while the blue-greens and blue-violets of the rest of the plant palette provide the split complements. The power of this combination is reinforced by the complete lack of red in the palette (green is usually always present in some form of course – this is a garden after all).
The combination is easier to see in the colors chosen for the house, but it was the plants that mainly grabbed my eye. Whether the designers did this intentionally or would even agree with my attempt to turn their fabulous creation into a mini-design lesson remains to be seen. All I know is, as I gear up for a month devoted to garden design, the talented designers of Roman Holiday have inspired me to push the color envelope.
If you'd like to see more display garden images, professional photographer Mark Turner, who graciously allowed me to use several of his photos in this post, has a whole gallery here.