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The colour wheel at Heronswood

A new garden development that highlights why ‘it isn’t easy being blue’ in the flower garden.

By Bill Bampton, head gardener at Heronswood. 
Heronswood is more than a garden, it is a learning space, a living embodiment of the Diggers philosophy.

It should feel like the pages of our books and magazines brought to life. So, when we set about expanding garden beds to form a circular lawn around our Desert Ash, the idea formed – imagine a colour wheel you could walk around! What better way to bring understanding about colour harmony and contrast off the page? Great idea, but how to achieve it without being clunkily didactic or appearing like a bedding pinwheel or floral clock missing its hands?

Playing with colours

We approached it like a game with rules, dividing the garden’s circumference into the 12 sections of the colour wheel – each section to be about 7 metres long and have the structural elements of a planting scheme; at least a climber, a shrub, an annual, a ground cover, a strappy-leafed plant and a mounding plant. The plants had to be either from the current or historic Diggers range. 

Although it sounds like colour by numbers, creating rules like this is a fun and liberating way to design a garden. Matching plants objectively to their hue was the first task. It wasn’t easy! Colour is all about perception – it is our reading of the electromagnetic spectrum; it’s not like weighing or measuring a pumpkin. The RHS has whole committees and charts dedicated to the uniform objective assignment of plant colours. We armed ourselves with a printed colour wheel and a plant list, then started sorting. 

A real trap to avoid is the influence of plant names and associations. Instead, hold the bloom against the colour chart and really look at what you are seeing, as if you are trying to match a paint swatch. We were amazed at how distorted our memory of what a flower’s colour really was.

A light touch

Garden environments are not totally controlled; atmospheric light plays a role in colour perception. The challenge and joy of gardening is the change in light from place to place and time to time. Of late I have noticed how richly violet our convolvulus looks in the soft winter light; I am sure under the harsh gaze of summer it was paler and bluer. I feel this means our colour wheel sorting will be a process. We have already moved a scabiosa we planted in blue across to blue violet. 

The exercise really showed a bias towards various sections of the wheel – the red violet section was overflowing, orange and lime green less so. There are those who would like to eliminate whole hues from the spectrum; yellow and orange seem to challenge many. I have always been struck by how despising a hue is a bit of a badge of honour in gardening. I can’t think of painters who totally dismiss whole chunks of the available palette for all time. While Picasso had a blue period, I can’t imagine him declaring a hatred of orange. 

The colour garden should help you see where you fit on the colour spectrum and you will gravitate to some sections more than others. Hopefully too, it will make you reappraise the value of some hues you may have dismissed.

Staying true to blue

The blue section is the greatest challenge to fill, as blue is the rarest of hues in the plant world. This is partly due to the difficulty of plants to produce a blue pigment and partly our limited perception of the colour spectrum. Insect pollinators perceive many more flowers as blue. 

Still, gardeners love blue and wishful thinking means they rank plants as blue that objectively are blue violet. Very few cultivars christened ‘blue’ live up to their name, most notably Rose ‘Blue Moon’. The power of a name is strong. The beautiful Rose ‘Veilchenblau’ we have allocated as pure violet, based on what we see, but the emphatic name instils doubt. 

Luckily, in the Diggers range we do have some unmistakably blue flowers: delphiniums, Echium ‘Heronswood Blue’ and cornflowers. However, I’m not sure we will have much luck with the bluest of flowers – the Meconopsis. Dromana is a long way from the Himalayas! 

Pastels seem to be a trial; I think it is the way we tend to see them quite differently from more saturated colours. Does it come from old fashioned dress rules about red and pink? They are essentially different tints of the same colour. Still, it is quite a task to place the pure colour and pastel tints together in quite a tight space. 

As this evolving project fills out, visitors to Heronswood will learn along with us. Take home lists of plants to make a monochrome garden or a harmonious scheme combining adjacent sections, or stroll diagonally across the lawn and play with complementary and contrasting colours to create quite a riot.


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