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Shades and tones of natural Earth

Updated on March 19, 2011

Working with Nature's visuals

Gardeners are privileged to work with the colors of the natural world. Most artists spend years studying these colors, trying to emulate them, and learning from them.  These are the colors of living things, with an ancestry and a heritage which is accepted by the senses. There are literally tens of thousands of shades, tones, and color variants. Soils actively contribute the chemistry to colors, which is one of the reasons the same plants often seem slightly different in different environments.

Natural colors have a huge range of environmental qualifiers. The gardener can be spoiled for choice, or more often confused, by the profusion of options. In some gardens, like cottage gardens, the plants do the color work, bonding into a single, highly individualistic visual entity.

If beauty has benchmarks in the natural world, native flowers are among the most reliable. Native flowers provide extraordinarily effective contrasts and styles in their home environments, complementing each other and their surrounds. This is arguably one of the more infuriating parts of gardening, trying to get these incredible effects consciously. 

That said, gardeners are nothing if not aspiring artists. Formal gardens using extremely effective visual plants like roses, gardenias and other very strong color elements are a testimony to the extremes to which gardeners will go to achieve their works of art. The art form, however, tends to mirror the artist. If you've seen Monet's garden, you'll appreciate that even the supreme Impressionist really had to work with his palette, not dictate to it.

Plants have their own idioms and contexts, and as most gardeners know only too well, their own role and personalities within a garden setting. Plants will write their own scripts for their roles in any composition, and it's worth remembering that they often do that very well indeed.

For example: I had one particular rose which would get leggy at the slightest opportunity. It was quite happy to grow in any direction, except downwards. This was a Magellan among roses, determined to explore the world. I'm not the world's most enthusiastic pruner, and I let it go for a while. One day I returned home to find a rose apparently floating in mid-air. The rose had extended a thin stem, and produced a flower the size of my fist on the end of it. The stem was so thin I didn't even notice it when it was budding.

It was an incredible effect, and I left the leggy rose in future to do whatever it wanted to do. You really do have to learn what a flowering plant can do, and this was a lesson in dynamics as much as an aesthetic I don't think I would have even considered possible if I'd thought of it.

The lesson here is give your plants a chance to see what they can do. Most artists will tell you that some of their best work comes from experimentation. In a garden, you've got an entire population ready to volunteer to try any sort of option, so don't discourage them.

One of the best options for experiments is to try planting randomly. You can even brighten up a lawn with bulbs and a "meadow mix", preferably self-seeing annuals which will look after themselves and don't mind getting mowed occasionally. These are tough plants, and they behave like clover. Mowing doesn't bother them at all, and the effects are quite spectacular.

Bulbs are true masters of color. The English bluebell can produce symphonies of floral arrangement, and if you get sneaky and mix in other bulbs, (preferably big ones, which can deal with the hordes of large bluebells), you can have a new landscape every season. This is an experience not to be missed, just remember to ensure you're able find your way around after the bulbs start to flower.

Bulbs, corms and tubers are also good for planting in environments where other plants may not do too well. They bring their own nutrients, and their growth habits are all based on reliable routines. You may need to separate big collections of bulbs, but watch how they operate as color elements in any environment. It's quite a sight.

Some exotic plants are assets in other ways. They can colonize areas natives don't like, and provide a huge range of color options and textures. If you're looking for good color matches, however, remember that the natives and the exotics aren't natural neighbors. Keep an eye on any signs of deterioration in one or the other, because it means proximity isn't working.

Flowering climbers can create magic on a regular basis, too. Bougainvilleas, roses and others can produce excellent color ranges. You may not be able to see the house any more, but you won't mind. Good foliage plants, particularly the very trustworthy ivies, are excellent for covering up architectural eyesores and adding that Old World color scheme, too.

This part of gardening can become truly obsessive, but it's fun.


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