Color Schemes in the Garden: Anything Goes

Nemesia sp.

Nemesia sp.

Garden designers are a predictable group. Dogmatic and snobby, they carry on as though possessed of some arcane knowledge. In truth, any two plants with similar growth requirements look well together when planted side by side, and you don’t need a lot of horticultural expertise to design a memorable garden.
Nowhere, perhaps, is there more pretense than when it comes to selection of plants for flower color. Some people insist that yellow is common, red garish and white uninteresting; they demand a palette of pastels such as
mauve, rose and salmon. Others can only bear flowers that come in shades of lavender, a color commonly seen in the blooms of drought tolerant plants.
An essay in the Wise Garden Encyclopedia, published in 1954, provides insight into the folly of making plant selection based on flower color. “In nature,” we read, “there is no such thing as antagonistic color. All colors are in harmony and are to be seen with all other colors, without unpleasant results. However extraordinary this seems, it is undeniably true. … Taboos against particular colors and color combinations have been established arbitrarily – presumably by those whose personal taste they have affronted.”
It is only recently that color has become so important in the garden. The classic gardens of China, Greece and Rome, as well as those of the Renaissance, emphasized form and mass, and gave no thought to color.
The Persians were the first to deliberately introduce color into the garden, which they did by domesticating local bulbs such as iris, hyacinth, narcissus and tulip.
The Persians valued color because of their climate, which included a very short spring followed by a blistering summer. Only for a matter of weeks would any flowers be visible, so they maximized the color show during this brief bloom period. The Dutch, who traded with Persia, brought these same bulbs to northern Europe, where their colors proved to be a cheery antidote to slate- gray skies and gloomy weather.
An objective observer might wonder why people would want color in a garden. Brilliantly flowering shrubs, annuals, bulbs and ground covers require more nervous upkeep than their modestly flowering or nonflowering counterparts.
Also, gardens are supposed to be places of repose, and, in this respect, there is no substitute for the cool monotony of green. Reds and blues, yellows and pinks, whether loud or soft in tone, demand attention. The Japanese garden, which is expressly designed for meditation, is devoid of color schemes.
Nowadays, it seems, color is often used for color’s sake. Witness the enormous popularity of the purple leaf plum tree. It’s as if people were saying, “Well, since I must have a tree, let it at least have purple leaves!” Or notice the obsession, on the part of some, with planting annual flowers in the basins of trees. I have yet to see a tree that looked better for having flowers planted immediately next to its trunk.
The Wise Garden Encyclopedia evaluates colors for their humanistic qualities: “Red flowers are favorable for the weak and ailing to sit among, for rapid growing children below the physical norm to play in the midst of, for the aged and feeble to dwell with. We gather that it is an unfavorable color for general use, however, because the tendency of workers under red light is to irritability and quarrelsomeness. … Being the antithesis of red, blue is not a stimulating color and should be kept out of a garden if sluggish temperaments are in need of stirring and awakening. But it may prove of great help to the student or any desirous of contemplative retreat.” White flowers are described as “dazzling and sharp” and extolled for making other flowers, especially those in the yellow range, more brilliant.
Waiting for apples: Mrs. Wolfson of Van Nuys writes: “About six or eight months ago, I planted the seeds of a Gala apple. When will this tree bear fruit?”
Apple trees, planted from seed, take three to six years to produce fruit. Gala apple trees probably won’t produce well in Los Angeles, since they require more winter cold than we normally experience.
Seeds from a Gala apple, however, will not grow into Gala apple trees anyway. To get another Gala, you would have to graft a shoot or a bud from a Gala tree onto the young seedling tree you have just grown. From my experience, the best apple variety to grow in Los Angeles is Dorsett Golden.
Tip: To give a cold-sensitive plant a measure of protection in the garden, cut the tops off plastic milk or soda containers and fill them with water. Place these containers around your tender plant. This “wall of water” will blunt cold temperatures on a frosty night.

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