Pairing up neutral-palette flowers
The Canadian plantswoman Marion Cran pioneered the first gardening show on BBC radio and shared her straightforward colour philosophy in The Story of My Ruin (1924): “Half of gardening is self-control…. The colours are here for us all to use…. It remains to discipline greedy hearts into using them with fineness.”
Pondering the riot of colour (or lack of it) in our gardens is entirely personal and directly tied to our emotions. It's all about signature and expression. Planting a red border or filling your garden beds with blue and mauve gives insight into who you are.
Interpreting ourselves through colour and carrying that into the garden takes some management and a few simple strategies. My first piece of advice is this: forget the colour wheel and traditional theories of hue compatibility. Most colours and all their shades fall into three groups—warm, cool and neutral. So let's start with the neutral tones, which, despite their calm demeanor, are key players in all colour expression.
The neutral palette of flowers and foliage encompasses white, cream, beige, ivory, grey, brown, copper and black. Green by itself is also a neutral and provides the backdrop against which all other colours are displayed (think of the fine leaves of baby's breath and the broad, leathery foliage of sea lavender, both in cooling tones of grey-green).
The most important use of neutral shades is cooling or intensifying the impact of stronger colours. For example, a full bed of blazing red impatiens may be so intense that we look away. But the red can be subdued when muted with soft cushions of grey-leafed snow in summer.
Neutral colours can also intensify deep petal shades. Although she planted many single-hue gardens, the British garden stylist Gertrude Jekyll understood this. “It is a curious thing,” she said, “that people will sometimes spoil some garden project for the sake of a word.… A blue garden may be hungering for a group of white lilies, but is not allowed to have it because there must be no flowers in it but blue flowers. I can see no sense in this; it seems to me like fetters foolishly self-imposed.” Jekyll was right. A patch of neutral white lilies intensifies blue delphiniums, just as the grey-blue leaves of the shrubby Arctic blue leaf willow intensify the warm pink of climbing ‘John Davis' roses.
Variegated plants also produce a neutral effect with their melding of green and white, and will lighten and relieve the darker colours around them. The wispy, pale green wands (each with a thin white stripe down the middle) of ‘Morning Light' maiden grass are amplified and echoed in the broader spears of variegated Dalmatian iris. Both make beautiful punctuation plants on either side of stone steps or a pathway, or bring light and movement when placed near a cedar hedge. A drift of silver-dappled ‘Mrs. Moon' lungwort lightens dark conifers such as hemlock and spruce, and can be combined with lambs' ears—the chartreuse fuzzy leaves of ‘Primrose Heron', or the oversized grey ones of ‘Helen Von Stein'—to make carpets between shrubs in semi-shaded places. In vertical spaces on sturdy arbours, variegated vines such as kiwi, with its large, white-to-pink blotches on each leaf, or the cream-veined porcelain vine that bears amethyst, blue and turquoise berries in autumn, create soft displays.