Design & Decor - Design Ideas

Garden colour strategies: neutrals

Find out how neutral shades can cool or intensify stronger colours in the garden

Tackling plants with darker foliage
The Artemisia clan is known for the silvery foliage of its cultivars, including ‘Boughton Silver' and ‘Valerie Finnis', but Guizhou combines it all with a small rosette of purple-tinged green leaves, tall, slender purple stems and frothy, lightly scented, creamy white flowers in late summer that are outstanding against a dark background. In larger gardens, the foliage of the Russian olive tree stays silver throughout the season and has a casually graceful posture that softens an austere front lawn or backdrop of dark conifers.

Plants with black foliage, such as ‘Hillside Black Beauty' black cohosh, with its sweetly scented white flow­ers, and the chocolate brown-leafed ‘Espresso' perennial geranium, with lavender, upward-facing blooms, have enough presence to make an elegant statement in the border. To frame an entrance, pyramidal ‘Dawyck Purple' beech offers dark, coppery foliage on a narrow form that takes up little space.

Woody plants with neutral colours have many uses in landscape design. Christopher Lloyd, the resident gardener at Great Dixter in Sussex, England, favours woolly willow “with rounded leaves that are particularly silvery when young…but continues to look well right into autumn.” Neutral plants can be combined for dramatic effects of their own. Woolly willow can be paired with coppery brown ‘Diabolo' ninebark to make stunning light and dark patterns in a shrub border or along a driveway.
The same look can be achieved by combining variegated silver-edged dogwood and Black Beauty elder. In a partly shaded setting, the familiar, grey-green leaves of lady's mantle (in its improved form, ‘Thriller') meld with the subtle, nodding brownish green bonnets of ‘Chocolate Soldier' columbine, whose long, chartreuse stamens match the lady's mantle's flowers. Bronze-leafed ‘Palace Purple' coral bells is an attractive addition to this group—its foliage colour comes close to the ‘Chocolate Soldier' blooms.

Perhaps the most astute use of neutral colours is to foster unity and cohesion in a garden. Placed at intervals throughout, they provide a context for plants of more flamboyant hues. Plants such as the variegated stonecrop ‘Frosty Morn', the grey ‘Silver Carpet' lambs' ears and the grey-green ‘Krossa Regal' hosta make effective colour echoes when several of each are interspersed throughout the garden, while the mellow shades of neutral grey, cream, black and copper are steadying influences that balance our personal choices for colour harmony.

Hue - An individual colour, such as blue, green, red or yellow
Value - A colour's natural vibrancy or brightness
Tint - A hue lightened by adding white
Shade - A hue intensified by adding black
Tone - A hue softened by adding grey (black and white combined)

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