June 24, 2011 10:04 pm

Colour wheel in a spin

The wet weather has brought out unexpected combinations of wild and brilliant hues
The garden at Crathes Castle, Scotland

The garden at Crathes Castle, Scotland

The recent rain has given us heavenly moments in English gardens. The start to the year was so dry and testing but the soil is now workable and everything bedded out is relishing the change. Fascinatingly, the losers are those carefully laid schemes of colour and contrast. Flowers from July are visible with the deadheads on late June’s roses. Nature is teaching us the lesson of the great lady of Anglo-American taste, Nancy Lancaster. “In time,” she would say in her older age, “you’ll learn to like anything with anything.”

I am learning to like strong sky-blue Delphinium Merlin with bronze red heleniums and yellow Jasminum humile revolutum, thankfully unharmed by the hard winter. Blue, bronze and clear yellow are not in gardeners’ approved lists of colour combinations, let alone in the arbitrary ordering of that “colour wheel” which books try to impose on planters. The great Miss Jekyll had only one way of arranging colour, a subtle way of leading up to strong tones by planting neighbouring shades next to them. It looks very pretty, but so do many other ways of doing things and I am not sure that she ever faced our accelerated seasons back in Surrey in the 1890s.

My colour sense is quite elastic, except that I exclude all the purple-rose, mauve-pink and lilac-blue, which interrupts the ornamental grasses in the Piet Oudolf school of landscaping. With such wondrous pure colours to choose from, I marvel how these planters cannot look beyond deep rose-purple cirsiums and pale pinkish-flowered pokeweed. It all looks so stale and leaves me pining for a fine delphinium or a lupin as good as a yellow one called Alan Titchmarsh, which has been one of my joys in June.

What would the grassy fraternity make of my pleasure of the moment, a mixture of white, clear yellow and shades of blue which the weather has brought out all at once?

The main yellow comes from the easy herbaceous Potentilla recta Warrenii, the whites and blues from the exquisite campanulas and yet more lemon-yellow from one of my oldest favourites, little Hypericum olympicum citrinum. Among them are two Clematis durandii with dark velvety blue flowers which are supposed to climb up neighbouring shrubs but which were not pointed in the right direction by my hand in a busy year. None of these plants is at all difficult and they can all be raised so easily from cuttings or seeds.

The potentilla seeds itself very freely and I have had ever more of it in the past 20 years. Its yellow is exceptionally clear and bright, so much so that sensitive souls buy the paler Potentilla recta sulphurea instead. I now prefer ordinary clear yellow Warrenii, a plant which will grow just as well in semi-wild settings where it has to compete with grass.

The winners are the many campanulas, at their best this weekend. It is so easy to start a population of the basic blues and whites, the forms of Campanula persicifolia. They are available as seed from Chiltern Seeds in Cumbria and if they are sown in the next three weeks in boxes of damp compost and covered with a plastic hat, they will germinate easily within three weeks and can be pricked out by the score into boxes. They will then be fit to go out in late autumn or early spring and, once they are in the garden, they will go on self-seeding all around in a way which takes up little space. I seldom remove them as unwanted intruders and I consider them one of the essentials of midsummer. They have so much more class than a variegated grass.

I never planned for combinations of bright red and white but thanks to the weather, I have them, too. Florists consider this combination to be “blood and bandages” but I think it shows up well without any hint of hospitals. Much of my red comes from the vivid scarlet Lychnis chalcedonica, a colour so bright and clear that pastel-gardeners are told to beware of it. Actually it shows up brilliantly in groups of one to three at a time, dotted round a garden like dabs of paint. A dark green background sets it off well, a reliable setting whatever the season.

This year I have some of it in front of the big white-flowered Crambe cordifolia, the plant with thick roots like its relation, sea kale. It flowers at heights of up to six feet, usually in early July, and then virtually disappears in a clump of yellowing basal leaves. It was a favourite of Edwardian border-planners but it looks stunning among rough grass where it can be discreetly staked to stand up to its magnificent height. A few plants of the red lychnis can then be dotted near it as they, too, will compete with a grassy setting. It is incredibly easy to propagate by cutting up the long root into little bits in early autumn and laying the pieces on their sides in big boxes of damp compost. These root cuttings will each resprout and make a new plant for potting on and planting out in the following year. The combination of scarlet and this tall white is much more exciting than yet another ground cover of hardy mauve geraniums.

Early seasons force us to realise that there is much more to colour mixing than our usual plans recommend. Gardeners are artists using disobedient materials, so I wish we looked more often at the wild and brilliant colour mixes of impressionist painters for encouragement in our own experiments. The colour wheel recommendations and the graded style of Miss Jekyll were related to the style of the Barbizon school of painters in the mid-19th century just before impressionism took off. So much has happened since 1860 that it is absurd to be bound by the so-called rules of that time. Instead, imagine a hot flower garden through the canvasses of Caillebotte or Monet, themselves passionate gardeners, let alone the genius of Van Gogh. Until this recent rain I was thinking we might even have sunflowers in flower in mid-July. They would break the conventions of the 1860s but for eyes trained on Van Gogh or Monet they would be a wonderful challenge to a usual season of tasteful off-white astrantia.

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