Gardening: Allow for rule-breakers in colour scheme plots

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Hopefully everything is coming up roses in all of our gardens and the summer show of flowers is getting in full swing.

The bright and varied colours dance in front of our eyes, luring us in to look closer and marvel at their intricate beauty or to catch an enticing scent. Playing with colour combinations is one of the many joys of gardening. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t quite feel right, and more often than not the really stunning results are by pure accident, as self-seeding individuals squeeze in amongst the chosen ones. Besides, flower colours are never really static in their hue but soften or intensify with age, glistening in sunlight or subtly glowing under the dullness of a cloudy sky. So I don’t think it pays to be too rigid or too particular if plotting out a colour scheme, but allow for surprises and rule-breakers.

What I have learnt to appreciate is the spaces in between. French composer Achille-Claude Debussy is often quoted as saying “Music is the space between the notes,” suggesting that the silence in a song is as important as the sound. With bold colourful flowers, it can be their positioning, their foliage and their plant companions that help provide the complete picture.

One way to add these breaks in garden colour is by using “muted” colours, such as plants with silvery grey foliage. Lavender is a good example, often providing a soft definition to pathways and a gentle framework around flowerbeds. Lavender is the classic Mediterranean plant and as such will want free draining soil more than anything, tolerating some winter chill as long as it is not too severe and prolonged. It likes the summer sunshine, whilst conserving moisture with its silvery grey foliage in times of drought.

Artemesia and Senecio are two groups of plants that are widely available and used repeatedly in planting schemes. Artemesia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ has sharply cut edges to its silvery leaves providing great contrast in shape and colour, growing to about 60cm. For the coolest display, the hands down winner must be the cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, growing to around 1.5 meters high and almost as wide, the structure and outline of its silvery sculpture is impressive and striking. The leaf stalks and midrib are edible, but it is from Cynara scolymus, the globe artichoke, that you eat the young flower buds. Here at RHS Harlow Carr we have some of each growing in the Mediterranean Border and in the Kitchen Garden alike.

To go up another scale, walk down the Main Borders and see the large specimens of Elaeagnus angustifolia ‘Quicksilver. This spreading and suckering shrub has the most gorgeous scent that fills the air in early summer. Surrounded by the greens of many herbaceous perennials the small silvery leaves add lightness to the landscape.