Jill Severn’s Gardening Column

Color in the garden


Gertrude Jekyll, a wonderfully eccentric artist and gardener, was born in London in 1843 and spent most of her life in the English countryside. She was the author of several gardening books that reveal her acute attention to form and color, and her conviction that gardening is, or ought to be, a fine art. She regarded her flower borders as if they were paintings.

And – a little warning – she lived at a time when very long sentences were the norm. Here's one: 

A collection of flowering plants, Jekyll wrote, “is only like having a box of paints . . . “or, to go one step further, it is like having portions of these paints set out upon a palette. This does not constitute a picture; and it seems to me the duty we owe to our gardens and to our own betterment in our gardens is to so use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures; and that, while delighting our eyes, they should always be training those eyes to a more exalted criticism; to a state of mind and artistic conscience that will not tolerate bad or careless combination or any sort of misuse of plants, but in which it becomes a point of honor to be always striving for the best.”

On her 15-acres, she created – with hired help – a flower border that was 200 feet long and 14 feet deep. She began at one end with “flowers of pure blue, grey-blue, white, palest yellow and palest pink; each color partly in distinct masses and partly inter-grouped.” Towards the middle, the coloring gradually moved to stronger yellows, oranges and reds. These colors she described as “strong and gorgeous, but, as it is in good harmonies, it is never garish.” Then, heading towards the far end, the colors recede again to gradually calmer pale purples and lilac.

These are ambitions few of us could live up to, but they are fun to think about. Many gardeners choose plants with little regard for color combinations at all. Some go for a riot of color. Sometimes it’s a happy riot; in other instances, it’s a riot that might draw the garden police, if there were any, though fortunately there aren’t.

Others, myself included, look at our gardens and discover that we have chosen colors and color combinations without even being fully aware that we were doing so. In my case, the result is a backyard that is more serene than exuberant; more calming than exciting. There is no yellow (except for the yellow centers of asters), no orange, and no red.

My backyard palette includes various shades of lavender-purple-blue, pinks ranging from pale to vivid, white, and greys provided by rose campion and patches of lamb’s ears. Once I noticed what I was doing, I got better at it.

I am still learning about blue. There are very few flowers that are really blue; most have some degree of purple or lavender in them. Nearly all shades of these flowers are in harmony with one another, but when I planted something that was really blue in their midst – a truly blue delphinium – it was the visual equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. Clearly, I have more to learn.

A different approach to color – or the absence of it – was taken by Vita Sackville-West, another English writer. She created a garden of all white flowers, with grey and green contrasts, to be viewed by summer moonlight. If I had 15 acres and hired help, I might try that too.

Instead, I’m just mulling over what Jekyll has to say about “the nobler color quality of sumptuous splendor.” I may aim for that in my front yard next year.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com


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