I'll often ask clients what their color preferences are for container garden plantings or as a palette for a new garden border. It can often be hard for them to articulate, however, and ends up being a series of Q & A – reds? Yes. Oranges? Not sure. Blues? Maybe. I find that I need to offer a new vocabulary and as always Nature provides.
I was looking for ideas for a color scheme for an area of my own garden. I had the warm cedar siding of the little guest cabin which formed a pleasing association with the peeling cinnamon colored bark of the paper bark maple (Acer griseum). On a whim (and because I had them!), I also added orange crocosmia around the tree at which point I began to see a theme emerging of warm, somewhat mellow tones.
Next I added a golden 'Skylands' oriental spruce (Picea orientalis 'Skylands'), rich yellow 'Zagreb' tickseed (Coreopsis verticillata 'Zagreb') and dozens of yellow daffodils. As I planted 'Crème brulee' coral bells (Heuchera) in the cabin's window box and adjacent container I was finally able to put a name to my color scheme; sunset.
Using a Nature inspired theme releases me from the frustration of having to decide if I prefer orange or red. It frees me up to select shades from deep burgundy to burnt orange, adding in softer highlights or more vibrant fiery shades as I choose. It's also proving to be lots of fun as I combined 'Double play Big Bang' spirea (Spiraea japonica 'Tracy') with a fabulous deciduous mollis azalea (Rhododendron x kosteranum) whose coral flowers perfectly echoed the color of the new growth on the spirea.
Looking to mid-summer I have mass planted black eyed Susan's (Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm') thanks to the generosity of friends and intend to add a swathe of blousy red oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis sp.) nearby for an explosion of color later this month. As summer transitions to fall I'll keep the color story going with the tall switch grass 'Shenandoah' (Panicum v. 'Shenandoah'). This whispering grass may start out olive green but quickly matures to rich burgundy blades which dance in the slightest summer breeze. I still have more plants to add as well as a small fountain using a 2' tall ceramic brown 'teapot' which will be placed by the cabin porch.
Incorporating non-plant material such as containers, pathways or even the cabin is a way to add solidity to an otherwise seasonally changing picture. These elements can anchor the color theme and become a reference point around which other ethereal stars are showcased.
Your interpretation of 'sunset' may be different from mine and feature shades of pink, purple and midnight blue. The good news is that it doesn't matter! This is just a vocabulary to help guide you visually at the nurseries.
The chances are that if your color scheme is inspired by Nature – it will be fabulous. Surely we are simply students of Art seeking to learn and to share?
PS. If you'd like to read about the adventure of moving the cabin into this border you can do so here.