Happy accidents abound in the late summer garden. This morning, a pairing of purple cabbages wilting gently next to an electric orange Rudbeckia makes me stop my weeding for a moment and pay attention.
And as I look at this stunning couple, I am reminded of Lunaria annua and Geranium ‘Rozanne’ making merry in the spring garden in a soft haze of monochromatic blues, accented by the occasional sweet pink of Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera berlandieri) weaving gently through both.
Color combinations can be striking or soothing, but utilized skillfully, are usually the feature that divides good gardens from great ones. There are specimen plants surely, but how daring instead to marry the ubiquitous Knock-Out rose to a strong clump of Zebra Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis “Zebrinus”) and declare it a match made in heaven. Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The accidents, when they come, are certainly wonderful (witness the current exuberance of my Sweet Autumn Clematis creating a perfect foil for scarlet red Pelargoniums in nearby hanging baskets); but a planned combination – a combination that you have planted and cosseted, and then against all odds has actually bloomed at the same time – is immensely satisfying. With a whole season of growing time at stake, to see two plants doing what you sat them down and told them to do makes all other garden failures seem less heartbreaking somehow.
I admit I have sacrificed plants in this quest. I well remember a large flowered Oenothera (its variety lost to time) whose clear yellow hue seemed somehow brighter, sitting as it did next to the soft gray of common Lamb’s Ear. The suffocating embrace of the latter soon dissolved that particular union, but not before I had enjoyed two seasons of perfect pairing.
Although I certainly do not claim mastery (or even proficiency) in this particular area of gardening, I believe the key to success is research and a well used notebook. With limited space as my constant companion, it is the gardens of others that must provide much of my inspiration and research. So, the notebook and camera come out when I am visiting other kingdoms.
Digital photography has been a boon to the once wasteful 35mm gardener intent on photographing flower, foliage, tag and environment of each and every hopeful he or she came across on safari. Once you’ve got equipment these days, the actual photos are cheap, so take many. Of course, a good day out will require an hour of photo and note sorting at home, but the information gleaned is worth the time spent.
The most difficult aspect of creating color combinations is the most obvious one – bloom time. What with the best laid schemes of mice and men going oft awry as they are annoyingly wont to do, planting two “spring bloomers” doesn’t necessarily mean they will be both be bursting forth in glorious Easter tandem.
In order to help the ambitious gardener conquer this very problem, a book was recently written by Tomasz Aniśko, curator of plants at Longwood Gardens, entitled When Perennials Bloom. 512 beautifully researched pages document bloom times all over the world, providing charts and diagrams and all things scientific to the gardener bent on color supremacy. I do not possess it yet, but just as soon as my husband stops scanning the bank statements, a trip to the bookstore is called for.
Of course, there is one way around the difficulty of simultaneous bloom – just use more colorful foliage in your planting schemes, such as Plecanthrus with Oxalis – Coleus with Pelargonium – Sweet Potato Vine with just about anything. Apply all of your brush technique to the canvas, utilizing texture, height and form, and surprising combinations may astound you and leave you hungry for more.