In the Garden: “Color” In the Garden

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by Charles Kidder

“What’s it do??!!”

I often hear this question on garden tours, right after the guide has showcased a very handsome plant that just doesn’t happen to be in bloom. The all-too-clear meaning of the query: What are the flowers like, as if nothing else really mattered to a gardener. Show me dinner plate-sized flowers, pink with purple polka dots, or I ain’t interested!

Taste varies, whether it’s for plants, food, clothing, etc. But in the gardening world, I wonder if we have been conditioned by the horticultural establishment to expect something from gardens that’s not always easy to achieve, as in non-stop flowers and color. And by “color,” most garden writers and gurus mean “anything but green.”

Spring is such a beautiful season with its explosion of color—not only flowers, but the fresh hue of new foliage, as well—that it’s tempting to want to prolong the experience. There are three ways of doing this: with annuals that are changed out at least twice a year; with a variety of perennials and woody plants that bloom and fruit successively throughout the season; or by using plants with foliage in something other than the dreaded green.

Unless you have only a few annuals in a pot by your front door, they can involve a lot of work. And as someone who has been labeled The Reluctant Gardener, they’re generally not for me. I just don’t feature plopping in one plant in the fall, ripping it out in late spring, only to be replaced by something that thrives in the heat. This style of gardening certainly would not fit into the concept of sustainability, except for those annuals that reseed themselves. One advantage of gardening with annuals, however: if you end up with something that performs poorly or you just don’t happen to like, you’re only stuck with it for a few months. Next year, you get to try something new.

The perennial and woody plant option more closely mimics the natural cycle of our own ecosystem, i.e. lots of flowers in spring, some in the summer and fall, and quiet time in the winter. However, with judicious plant selection you can extend the season of interest. For example, hellebores are not only green all year, but start to flower in mid-winter. Crape myrtles bloom in mid-summer, when most of our native woodies take a break, and their colorful bark relieves the winter grayness. The berries of plants such as holly and beautyberry, as well as the flowers and foliage of the ornamental grasses, also extend the color display. (I’m assuming we can count the tawny tans of the latter as “color”!)

Granted, this style of gardening will not give you the big sweep of bold color lasting for months that a bed of annuals provides. Instead, you’ll have a slow-paced drama unfolding in your garden: a plant popping up in the spring that you may have forgotten about, then this plant blooms, later that one, and so on. Depending on the size of both your garden and your budget, it may not be possible to always have something always in bloom. Not to worry; it’s more important to plant what you like and let nature take its course.

Lastly, you can use plants with foliage in something other than green. Variegated plants, with their mix of green and yellow or green and cream, are always a big hit at garden centers. (Well, almost always. They do seem to fall into either the “love ’em” or “hate ’em” categories.) I think a few are good as garden accents, especially with a plain dark green plant in the background or perhaps with the right perennial out in front. Use too many variegated plants and the effect seems to diminish. Less is more.

Plants with reddish foliage, such as many Japanese maple cultivars, are very popular. A word of caution, though: red foliage often fades to a muddy brown by mid-summer, so provide some afternoon shade. Also, red foliage stands out well against a green background, but can look less attractive in front of a red brick building. (But then again, you may think it’s the perfect complement!)

Yellow foliage, typically seen on some of the conifers, can definitely brighten up the landscape. But the same yellow-leafed plant that can be cheery on a gray winter day can make you feel even hotter when you see it in July. Use with caution. On the other hand, the blue foliage of the Colorado spruce, as well as some cultivars of junipers and the true cedars, looks cooler in summer, yet still providing a nice accent in winter.

These three approaches to color in the landscape are by no means mutually exclusive; probably most of us are using some combination of them already. Just remember that gardening is not only about flowers and shocking hues. To turn Kermit the Frog’s phrase, “It’s okay to be green!”