June 5, 2012

Color Palette Combinations in the Garden

Entirely from the garden, this bouquet is not only a stylish palette, it is intensely fragrant - rich with the scent of Heliotrope, Sweet Peas and Stock. It's color palette may seem simple, but nature designed flowers to be more complex than we think. The color wheel here is broad and deep, and luminosity, transparency and saturation happens not in Photoshop, but with the sun.

As a graphic and visual designer professionally, it's not surprising that the most common question I get from friends and colleagues, when they find out that I have this gardening blog, is about color palettes. We all have favorite colors, and color taste is a very, personal thing, but there are some foundational rules to consider, rules that are hard, if not impossible to work around. The most important rule about color in the garden, is to accept your environment first, most likely, it exists in multitudes of green. Choosing a color palette combination for a garden is completely different than choosing color for paint or interior design. The physics are different outside, in nature, and in many ways, it's closer to choosing colors for a web site or a digital experience, because light suddenly comes into play more than ever. After all, plants flower for one purpose only - sex. They are designed to attract insects, so the built in features are closer to a video game or a pixel than you might imagine.

Like it or not, always remember that your canvas outdoors is primarily green and grey,  depending on the season and the light angle. Foliage and dark shadows dominate the garden, and color, is precious, often appearing only as specs and dots in the landscape.  Like pixels on a screen, nature uses color to attract, often with added features such as luminosity, refraction and layering of transparent tints to achieve a special effect.

Still, if you are just planning the perfect June wedding and are looking for a more thoughtful or stylish color palette, don't limit yourself to the printed catalog or magazine - try going outside and studying the woodland or the garden for a moment. The above image demonstrates that sometimes, there is something just "right" about certain combinations. There is a reason why hip flower sites show blush, champagne and plum flowers - all Photoshopped with filters and  de-shadows to look perfectly pale, but do you ever see this in real life? nope. Wedding blogs and hip stylish florist school sites know design quite well, but they also can manipulate images to appear, well, prettier than they actually are. Gorgeously yummy, but not very realistic when viewed in real life. 

Florists aside, in your garden, or, in your cutting garden, which is really should be two different subjects, the logic is different - the lighting is real ( either the sun, or in your home), and the plant material is not flown in from all over the world, it's seasonal. So forget Gerbera, lilac, Peony's, Billy Buttons and Hydrangeas all in the same arrangement - it's just not gonna happen. I know many of you want amazingly coral, pink, peach and buff - when in reality, this rarely is achievable outside of photoshop and creative lighting. Few of us live in a magazine photoshoot or a wedding blog with a handy color shift feature. But there are ways to add new and more interesting color palettes to you garden containers, new color ideas for your wedding, or new color palette combinations for the garden. 

If you want more posts on my color theory and plants, let me know - I think a little too much about it sometimes! But I do know my color theory, I work on a Wacom screen all day picking palettes for design projects, ranging from apps to print and product, and I am a pretty handy horticulturist, so maybe I can offer some sensible help here. It's a subject that I can frequently post about if it doesn't bore too many readers.

A few basic things to remember when buying plants based on color - if may have already discovered that seed catalogs and nursery catalogs are terribly misleading.  They show closeups of flowers like coral zinnia's or blush poppies, but the reality often is that 95 percent of the plant will be green, and 5 percent will have a flower with the color that you want. Of course they assume that you already know that the two plants will bloom at different times of the day, and year, and that the seasons will be off. There is just SO much to know.

1. Heliotrope - Heliotropium arborescens ( seed sown February 20th - Swallowtail Gardens.
2. Iris versicolor - "Cat Mousam' (Joe-Pye-Weed's Garden)
3. Parsnip Flowers - Pastinaca sativa, I always leave some in the garden to bloom (Johnny's)
4. Stock 'Quartet' - Mathiola incana (seed started March 12th, Johnny's Seeds)
5. Society Garlic - Tulbaghia violacea
6. Cardonna Sage - Salvia x sylvestris 'Cardonna' (Plant Delights Nursery)
7. Blue Flax - Linum lewisii (from Annie's Annuals)
8. Lathyrus Winter-Blooming Sweet Peas - (From Owl's Acre Sweet Peas)
9. Knautia macedonica - (Annie's Annuals)
10.Geranium 'Ann Folkard' (Plant Delights Nursery)
11.Iris siberica
12.Lathyrus- Winter Blooming Sweet Pea ( Owls Acres Sweet Peas)

Some of my best color combinations outdoors have been arranged in just this way - observing and noting what plants, and what color flowers and foliage, appear each day. For example, next year, I am replanting a border in front of the greenhouse which sits against a dark boxwood hedge. I noticed this spring, how nice the new yellow foliage bleeding heart looks against the dark hedge in early spring, and tulips in various shades of violet, plum and purple will mix nicely emerging from the border of chartreuse. If you are planning a June wedding, or looking for purple flowers and green flowers, spring is the best time to work with such a palette.

It's been raining for four days, and feeling a little British-like here in New England. So in honor of the Queen's Jubilee, (yeah, it's just an excuse to pick some flowers from the garden), I picked some purple flowers from the garden today. I could smell the Mathiola ( Stock) from a distance, it is very fragrant in the evening, and with stems nearly two feet tall, it is at its prime. I hate to say that I pulled out most of the seedlings that I started in March, because I made a mistake and first pinched them back, but they never branched ( I thought I had read that they should have been pinched to form strong two-foot tall bushy plants, but I confused this directive with one for snapdragons). Hey, it happens, even to me! The few that I left un-pinched, are now blooming, so I might as well pick them and enjoy them on this rainy, cold day.

The first of the Lathyrus ( Sweet Peas) are blooming also, but these are the winter blooming Sweet Peas which if you remember, I sowed back in November. Our field mice ate most of them as them emerged as seedlings, but a few re-sprouted in their pots in the greenhouse,  so I waited to see what they would do later on in the season. These are specially bred for winter cut flowers, (or to be more accurate, early spring sweet pea crops), since these are sweet peas which require less than the twelve hours of daylight, which is what summer-blooming varieties need to grow strong and bloom properly. These are just reaching peak bloom while the summer sweet peas are just starting to bud. One cannot compare the two forms. My summer blooming plants are three times as large, after only a few weeks outdoors.


  1. Anonymous1:57 AM

    Hi Matt. I live in Seattle and stumbled on your blog a few weeks ago. Tonight I just finished reading every post since your blog started. Great work. Excellent quality. I am a member of the Pacific Bulb Society and order from a large percentage of nurseries you suggest. Here is a nursery in Washington State you should take a look at it: Far Reaches Farm. Knowledgeable owners who have just started mail order. My first couple shipments have been outstanding in all regards. They care lots of stuff you would like. I am modifying my greenhouse layout and growing strategy based on your posts. I love Telos Rare Bulbs, particularly their species Glads. Here in Seattle my collections include dwarf ferns, Vine Maples, and gooseberries. Thanks for all your efforts.

  2. Very, very beautiful!!

  3. Thanks Seattle. I will have to check you Far Reaches Nursery - I never heard of them. You collection sounds amazing!

  4. hopflower10:18 AM

    Stunning. Of course, the lathyrus makes it what it is. :)

  5. Matt, wonderful bunch of flowers from your garden. Looking forward to posts on your sweet peas -- I got zip from my vines this winter/spring and pulled them out. And have to thank your reader for the head's up on Far Reaches Farm going mail order -- wow, great news!

  6. Absolutely beautiful. I love this post! I'm linking it! Thanks!

  7. Hi Matt,
    I have been thinking of contacting you asking for more posts on color palette combinations. So I was very happy this morning to see this post and hope you do many more.
    Have just refurbished my 30 by 36' greenhouse and am restoring an acre of property and due to the beautiful May weather in the Pacific Northwest(80 miles north of Seattle)my late-sown seeds of over 200 flower and vegetable varieties have all germinated and coming along nicely.
    My collections are many, although a little scrambled and have increased since finding your site. Your posts are helping me pull it together and I owe my English sweet peas to you. Am eagerly waiting for them to bloom, but they are only a few inches tall and I can't make up my mind to cordon or not.
    I just wish you had time to post more often! Thank you for your great blogging.

  8. Matt. Love your blog, both information and quality pictures. I do love the Magazine growing with plants, when is the next issue due. Wish i could buy a hard copy here in the UK. I you there is market here as all the publications now focus on veg and wildlife.

  9. Matt.

    Love your blog. Can you tell me when the next publication of growing plants is due. Its great and wish it was a hard copy. It would do well here in the UK.

  10. Thanks Kate, for the support. You place sound amazing! Joe and I might be visiting the Seattle area later this summer ( to hike the Cascades) I love that area, it's my fav.. part of the country!

  11. Alex, you can order my magazine from Magcloud.com in the UK, they ship to North America and the UK. Thanks for the nice comments about Plant Society Magazine. I had planned on it being a quarterly publication, but that never really happened ( work, time, etc). I almost completed a magazine this winter ( a winter issue) so I am holding off on it. Thanks for the boost, maybe I will design a new one before winter.

  12. Your blog is wonderful, very inspirational and beautiful. Thanks for sharing your ideas. The colour palette you showed is where my garden has been for several years but now I'm getting hooked on apricot/sherbet orange/ yellow combinations even tho they sometimes clash with my existing colours. Hope I am up to the challenge! On a more mundane level, have you ever posted about fertilizing? I've never done much beyond spreading composted manure in the spring and would like to do more if it would make a difference. Your advice would be invaluable - if you haven't posted, maybe there's a book you could recommend. Thanks again.


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