Sunset Inspiration

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.


The emerging purple cones on this Skylands spruce offers some serious eye candy!

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.



Layers of color between the spirea, azalea and dark leafed barberry capture the essence of a glorious 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.

Plant late season perennials close to oriental poppies to disguise the fading foliage.

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.



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  1. Elaine Jonson on May 7, 2012 at 2:29 am

    Fabulous Karen, You really impressed me with this post and the photo of the sunset is spectacular. I too have gravitated toward the same color palette and except for my "white garden" in dappled shade I need the punch of brighter colors everywhere else. To think that years ago I was a"pale pink" geranium person! Also when visiting nurseries I am always taken with the profusion of color and how in nature all seems harmonious without the benefit of the color wheel. Certain combinations resonate with me and I sometimes have to "stretch" to provide a palette suggested by my client and that is a fun challenge. Color preference is so individual and as a friend of my Mom was fond of suing "that's why they make vanilla and chocolate".

    • Karen Chapman on May 7, 2012 at 7:46 am

      One of the fun things about this property is that I have room for different color schemes without jarring – blues, whites and silvers closer to the house, sunset tones in the island border, shades of green in the woodland and chartreuse, purples, red and greens in the long Rhododendron border, which actually fronts the woodland. I have an excuse to buy anything!!!

  2. debsgarden on May 7, 2012 at 6:13 am

    Guest cabin? Well,sign me up! What a delightful cabin. Your guests will probably sit on the porch till the last rays of the sunset have disappeared, just soaking in the beauty of the surroundings. I like your color scheme very much, and it fits the cabin perfectly. Those spruce cones are wonderful…sigh. Our summers here are too hot for most spruce trees.

  3. Karen Chapman on May 7, 2012 at 7:49 am

    It is really sweet with a little stained glass window in the apex – no bathroom though! Our daughter lived in it one summer when the house was under such contstruction that it was a better option than the couch! It used to be much closer to the house – and looked terrible tehre! Moving it was quite the adventure which you can read about-

  4. Deborah Aldridge on May 10, 2012 at 7:18 am

    "Alabama Sunset" is one of my favorite coleus. It looks so beautiful plant en masse.

    • Karen Chapman on May 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm

      One of me favorites too!

  5. Stacy on May 10, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Karen, I'm really struck by what you say about the theme freeing you to choose from a broader (but also subtler) palette. It sounds like it could be easier to create a big, sweeping, painterly effect, rather than just a dots-of-color one (my specialty). Those warm, sunset colors really stand out against the backdrop of greenery!

    • Karen Chapman on May 10, 2012 at 10:09 pm

      I've learned through experimentation that 'dots' get lost when viewed from any distance but that I can still have fun experimenting with color hues if I think in themes rather than schemes.

  6. Jennifer on May 11, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Karen, I have never had trouble putting colors together, but I think most people are just the opposite. I think it is a great idea to look to nature and let her suggest the individual colors in a scheme. Your 'sunset' planting is sure to look great as the summer progresses.
    P.S. The little guest cabin is adorable. I want to stay there! LOL Have a great weekend!

    • Karen Chapman on May 12, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      Bookings being taken for the cabin!