Straight-talking American garden writer Henry Mitchell (The Essential Earthman: Henry Mitchell on Gardening, 1981) offers this useful advice: “No colour is ‘safe’ and no colour is ‘dangerous.’ More gardens are rendered dull by timidity than are rendered vulgar by excessive daring. Be bold. Be simple. Use large enough patches of colour to make the point.” Now, that’s good direction. If you have a passion for burnt orange calendulas and fiery red zinnias, plant enough of them so you can properly swoon with pleasure; using too few plants weakens the statement and makes the garden seem disorganized with dabs of vivid colour here and there, but no cohesive message.
British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll had no fear of warm colours at her residence, Munstead Wood, planting a hot border of oranges and golds without a trace of self-conscious doubt. Her garden pulsated with African and French marigolds, orange gladioli, lanceleaf tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata), golden glow (Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Hortensia’), orange sneezeweed, torch lilies, orange ‘Fire King’ lilies and double sunflowers. Miss Jekyll included scarlet sage (Salvia splendens) and red Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica) as contrasting accent plants, both of which appeared in small drifts like flannel petticoats peeking out from a hot orange skirt.
With Miss Jekyll’s orange border in mind, I filled a large stone container with ‘Nonstop Orange’ tuberous begonias and apricot ‘Wizard Sunset’ coleus, cooled just a bit with lavender-blue ‘Blue Ice’ fan flower (Scaevola aemula). By late summer, the plants had massed and grown into a blaze of glory on the doorstep, causing the letter carrier to blink.
Inspiration for pairing warm colours for mutual emphasis can be gleaned from the natural colorations of familiar plants such as ‘Kobold’ blanket flower and ‘Royal Standard’ torch lily, both with petal combinations of orange-red and yellow, and ‘Primadonna Deep Rose’ purple coneflower, with double-petalled, deep pink rays surrounding a glowing copper orange centre.
Colour-timid gardeners like me need a strategy for harnessing intensely warm hues and putting them to best use. Finding a similar characteristic among several plants and grouping them together is one way to make harmonious combinations. The brick-red ‘Niobe’ clematis is deeply saturated with black tones, and makes a pleasant partner near ‘Black Knight’ canna, which has similar deep red flowers over huge, black-green leaves. The frost-tender chocolate cosmos has this same red-black suffusion in its chocolate-scented petals and could nestle happily around the base of the canna. Together, these three plants emphasize their shared red-black characteristic. If Miss Jekyll were on the scene, she’d probably add the tangerine-and-yellow ‘Mandarin’ honeysuckle vine, along with a stout, 1.5-metre clump of bright yellow Autumn Sun coneflower, with prominent brown-black cones.