Each year gardens and plants offer so many possibilities for discovery and learning. One of the most intriguing aspect of gardens for many is the use of color, an area of garden design in turns incredibly gratifying if the planting comes together and frustrating if you do not achieve your objectives.
Creating a planned color scheme in a garden can be a tricky business. Success is not achieved simply by selecting plants with an array of colors that appeal to you — they not only must bloom at the same time, but to make things more complicated the size and shape of the flowers — similar or contrasting shapes like daisy flowers paired with vertical accents like hummingbird mints or celosia — matter as much as color.
Add to this intricate equation plant heights, foliage shape and texture and the whole process can feel overwhelming. However, there are a few simple processes to help achieve coordinated floral compositions if this is your desire.
An approachable way to think of garden design is simple concepts layered on top of one another. Some examples are repeat plants through the whole bed from one end to the other. Tall plants often have bare “legs” that need covering by smaller species.
Look for both complementary and contrasting colors and flower types. Choose at least some long blooming plants and those that bloom into late summer. Plant closely enough so at maturity plants foliage will just touch.
With annual plantings, space plants about 10 inches apart. Use compost and some organic fertilizer like feather meal for lush, healthy plants. Mulch for weed control and to save water.
Most gardeners benefit from examples to help generate ideas. Garden visiting is a very popular pastime. Color preferences are highly individual and there is no right or wrong.
A number of years ago I attended a lecture given by two English gardening greats, Christopher Lloyd of the garden Great Dixter, and Rosemary Verey of Barnsley House. Rosemary spoke first and showed us slide after gorgeous slide from her garden and extolled us to stick to pastel hues and never combine the colors yellow and pink.
Christopher Lloyd followed with slide after gorgeous slide of photos from his garden showing yellow and pink flowers happily intermingled.
As one example of these concepts, this May I planted a small annual flower bed (2’ x 30’) along one side of a parking area at Quirk Brewery at the Walla Walla Airport complex. I chose plants that have a long bloom season, are low maintenance, have a big impact in terms of size and color, do well in the heat and are pollinator friendly.
First, I incorporated a lot of compost and some organic fertilizer in the very poor soil and put in a drip system, using 2 lines of emitter tubing with emitters spaced at a 1’ inline spacing, and connected it all to a battery timer. After planting, I mulched with compost for weed prevention, to prevent evaporation of water, and add to soil fertility.
The very back of the bed had four young hop plants growing on a hop string trellis. The bed was densely planted with two lines of plants spaced 10 inches apart- front and back.
In the back row of the bed, I put alternating big plants like the wild sunflowers Helianthus debilis ‘Pan’ (from the Southeast), silver-leaf sunflower ‘Gold and Silver’ Helianthus argophyllus (from Texas), and a couple of kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Polygonum Orientale), All varieties from Select Seeds.
In the front row I interspersed zinnia Benary’s Giant Coral, and orange cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus). All the plants were spaced at about 10 inches apart — much closer than recommended. Though the footprint of the bed was very narrow, there was plenty of room for the plants to expand above it in height and width and I wanted the bed to overflow its narrow two-foot boundary in visual interest and flowers.
Now, in August the bed is a wall of color from the ground to over six feet in height. In contrast to typical sunflowers, the species I used are highly branched from the base, shrubby varieties with much smaller leaves. Each is adorned with a multitude of small flowers — very different from the usual single stalk sunflowers.
The Helianthus debilis ‘Pan’ has green foliage while the silver leaf sunflower has distinctive white finely haired foliage. Both are topped by deep yellow to clear yellow flowers.
The plant kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate is about six feet tall so far and has bright green leaves and pink flowers on strongly arching flower stems. It is just coming into full flower and should grow 2-3 feet larger with big arching stems and will look great into fall, taking over in size as the other plants reach their peak and decline in appearance.
In the foreground, the coral zinnias and burnt orange cosmos make a richly saturated color scheme. The contrast of large and small flowers and the richly saturated hues and clear colors makes an engaging and lively composition. Did I mention the single-story metal sided brewery building is painted royal blue?
I wasn’t sure any pollinators would find the flowers in the midst of such a dry and industrial expanse of land like the airport. One of the best aspects of the planting is it the discovery it had attracted many solitary (non-defensive) native bee species, the flowers evidently offering a rich, ongoing treat of pollen and nectar.
Sunflowers are some of the very best flowers for bees. So easy to grow and very drought resistant, these highly branched varieties bloom over a period of months, not weeks. After the flowers mature, goldfinches feast on the seeds, their antics and song a treat to watch and listen to. This is one very small garden; imagine what floral resources our home gardens can provide.
In addition to garden visiting, flower arrangements are one of the easiest ways to make frequent forays into the world of color. Each weekend at the Walla Walla Downtown Farmers Market I love to look at the flower arrangements made by the local farmer-florists, like Welcome Table Farm.
I recently went to the farm to see what they were growing. From celosia to dahlias, sunflowers and sedum, zinnia, annual asters, even cardoon, each flower color and form was more engaging than the last — and there was much to admire.
Hazel Asmus, a 13-year-old farmer-florist as accomplished as her mother Emily showed me around, revealing a very artistic and sophisticated grasp of color as she described one flower after the other and how it combined with others. I learned a lot. Later at the farmer’s market viewing their arrangements I learned even more.
In addition to flower arrangements, Hazel showed me her corn kernel necklaces — each the most fun work of natural art I have seen in a long time. She uses heirloom or colored corn varieties and makes specific patterns of different hued kernels strung with a sewing needle onto strong thread.
Mint is both a boon and bane in gardens. In the right place it is a deeply fragrant and useful groundcover, in the wrong place a monster devouring everything in its path. Not only does it produce delicious leaves for tea, but the flowers are also one of the best plants for attracting beneficial insects.
Lately I spent some time looking at what was visiting the flowers and was surprised to see lots of big black flies. Many fly species are beneficial natural predators of pest insects in our gardens and are flower visitors as adults, feeding only on nectar.
I sent photos to a friend who is an entomologist and she sent them to a colleague she had worked with at The Xerces Society, Corin Pease, a PNW Pollinator Conservation Specialist. He identified the most common species likely as “Archytas apicifer, a parasitoid of caterpillars including corn earworm, tomato fruitworm and cut worms.”
This widely found tachinid fly lays eggs on caterpillars. After hatching, the larvae penetrate the caterpillar’s body and live within the host, eventually consuming vital tissues and causing the caterpillar’s demise. There are 1300 Tachinid fly species in North America. Many are important, often unnoticed natural enemies in gardens and farms.