Archive for Sunday, April 4, 1999


April 4, 1999


Lights or brights? The colors we choose for our garden bring about different effects.

Nothing signals the end of spring break more abruptly than a trip to the grocery store on Sunday afternoon. The excursion, brought on by an empty refrigerator, forces the end of a weeklong absence from the responsibilities of work or school. Instead, people come face to face with the duties of everyday life as they join hordes of others who flock to the store.

I, too, ended spring break by restocking supplies of milk, bread and other necessities last week. The saving grace to my excursion was the sight of containers of pansies sitting outside the store -- little potted wonders patiently waiting to be purchased and planted in a garden. They were enjoying the newly warming air and quietly announcing the arrival of spring.

The containers had been arranged in tiered rows. Like tiny Easter eggs on a bed of grass in a basket, the pansies sat in rounded terra cotta pots, green foliage surrounding their colorful flowers. The painted faces of the flowers looked upward. "Take me home," they seemed to beckon. Their colors, lavender and yellow and white are the epitome of spring.

Joining pansies in the colorful parade in celebration of spring are the bright yellow of the forsythia bushes and the pinks of redbud and magnolia trees and the just-emerging whites of the Bradford pear tree. Yet, spring colors and the joy they bring to winter-tired eyes are just one aspect of color in the garden.

Spring palette

To be sure, we are struck by color in spring because every color we see looks so new and fresh and inviting. Gardeners know that color is effective in the garden and are very mindful about placing it there. Under a gardener's skillful hand, color makes the landscape come alive, like oils upon a canvas. I believe that gardeners are artists in their own right.

Yet, for those of you too unsure about color and because spring planting is just around the corner, a simple primer on the use of color in the garden may be helpful before deciding what plants to purchase during the next few weeks.

Let there be no doubt about the visual impact that color has in the garden. Color is often the drawing force into it. The clever use of color intrigues and entices visitors to enter a garden. Flower colors, newly discovered with each step, can coax garden guests further into it.

Emotion and illusion

Color also becomes the mood setter in a garden. Peacefulness, fun, meditation, romance. Imagine the soothing quiet of a garden filled with greens and blues, the explosion of activity suggested by bursts of reds and oranges or the closeness felt in a white garden on a misty morning.

And, finally, color creates illusions within the garden. With nothing more than the effective use of color, the size of the garden changes -- certain colors making it seem larger, other colors giving a more intimate sense to the area.

The warm colors are the reds, yellows and oranges and the cool colors are blues and greens. Typically, it is the use of warm or cool colors that creates spatial illusion within the garden. Warm colors make things appear closer than they really are, while the cool colors tend to recede, giving the illusion of more distance than actually exists.

So, if you have a small space that you want to appear larger, plant blue or green tone plants at the far edges of the garden area to give the sense that the boundaries are farther away than they really are. Conversely, if you want to create a more private feel, place warm colored flowers in the distance. This will have the effect of bringing the outer edges closer, making the space seem smaller than it really is.

Monotone mania

Much has been written about using a single color in a garden. Some gardeners want a garden, or at least a flower bed, to be of one color. All white gardens are popular. Yet, they are not for everyone and certainly not for every garden area. All white gardens look best when seen in dim light, such as on overcast days or at least out of the glare of the afternoon sun. Because overcast days cannot be controlled by the gardener, plant your all white garden in eastern or northern facing beds, out of the southern and western exposures of your yard.

Likewise, an all pink garden looks best in shady areas since the pink color reflects light and contrasts well with the deep green found in the shade. Other bright colors have the same effect. The warm colors of yellow and orange look great in strong sunlight. "They seem to grab the sunshine and hand it right back to you," Catriona Erler and Derek Fell write in "550 Home Landscaping Ideas."

Some plants, such as Japanese blood grass, poppies or Chinese lanterns, look best when the sunlight shines from behind them. Their bright red color is intensified when backlit by the sun. Plant them in areas that capture either the rising or setting sun, perhaps best decided by when you are most likely to stroll through the garden to view them.

Garden festivals

If a singular color is not to your liking, mix up the colors a bit. Complementary colors, such as yellows and purples, oranges and blues and reds and greens go well together. The mixing of these colors gives a bold look to the garden and is generally pleasing to the eye.

It is particularly easy to achieve a nice color balance with spring bulbs. Their colors are so striking and vivid. The bright yellow of daffodils complement the purple color of the grape hyacinths. An area filled with deep red tulips look stunning with the deep green foliage of the plants.

Some gardeners, either purposefully or accidentally, create a festival atmosphere in the garden with the random mixture of colors. For example, a field of wildflowers blooming in many colors creates a sense of being carefree and unplanned. A more thoughtful approach may be warranted when mixing many colors in a less casual setting. Too many colors too close together in a more formal garden will give a polka-dot appearance that sometimes overwhelms and distracts visitors.

The mixing in of white or gray affects the perception of flower colors. Typically, white flowers make either warm or cool colors look brighter and cleaner. Picture white impatiens mixed in among red ones or white alyssum bordering purple petunias. You can imagine how the white would bring out the intensity of the colored plant.

Gray-leafed plants create a wonderful backdrop for pastel colored plants. They tend to bring out the softer colors. Have you seen the refreshing look of lamb's ear planted among pink begonias or dusty miller mixed with pink geraniums? Gray foliage also is helpful in mediating two colors that otherwise might clash with each other.

In the end, I guess it doesn't matter that spring break is over. We can all enjoy the emerging colors that truly do celebrate the season. Besides, I have a pot of pansies to plant.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at

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