A Plea for Contrast

Color, form, and texture provide opportunities to create contrast. Photo: Lise Jenkins


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

In April I attended a Zoom presentation on plant diversity led by Tony Avent of Plant Delights fame. This old dog learned some new tricks — and I suddenly understood what I had done right in my garden and what I had done wrong.
Tony explained the necessity of creating contrast in the garden; contrast in color, in texture and in form. The average landscape typically contains six plants, creating little contrast. A new development near me created a monoculture of one purple plant that the developer planted by the dozens. The result is tedium, as there is no escaping the monotony of color and shape. The eye simply has no place to rest.
The simple truth is that gardens need plants, lots of plants. Gardens are about change, and a landscape with only six plants is, unfortunately, static.
Begin by contrasting two plants, concentrating on color, texture and form. For instance, you might consider placing a black colocasia against a screen of ornamental grasses. The bold texture of the colocasia will capture the eye, which will then take in the lacy texture of the grasses.
Colors can be either echoed or contrasting – the choice is yours. Gardening is personal, so what suits one person may be anathema to another. For instance, I dislike the color orange along with waves of the same color. The two rows of the so-called “rose garden” do not work for me because it’s too busy, filled with the same shapes and similar colors. I’m not saying it’s wrong; I’m saying it’s wrong for me.
Keep in mind that color is fleeting in the garden. Roses bloom in the spring and fall but only intermittently in the summer, so much of the time you’re simply looking at the silhouette of the shrub. I grow lots of roses that are scattered throughout the garden.

Gradually, over the years, I have discovered that different trellises and obelisks can support the roses that come in different sizes and shapes. Not all hybrid teas want to be the same height as their neighbors. I prune all my roses but not as severely as I did in the past. Consequently, some have developed into interesting shapes, and this is what your eye will see for most of the year.
Green, of course, is the predominant color in our gardens, so it behooves you to employ the different shades of green.
This is why I find chartreuse, a color I would never wear, works so admirably in the garden: It provides a clear contrast to the other greens. Likewise, a row of blue spruces would be a bit boring, whereas one blue spruce, strategically placed, provides a lovely contrast to the other greens.
It makes sense to look at the different forms and shapes of plants. Generally, place bold textures in the center, surrounded by plants of a different form. Remember this when planning a garden: textures and forms can be more important than flowers — even the best perennials have a rather short flowering period.
What have I done wrong? I have one area that gets suitable morning light, thereby providing a lovely place to raise hostas. I love hostas, so I managed to create a sea of them in this area. For years, I’ve had a compulsion to plant light-colored caladiums in between the hostas. Without knowing it, I was trying to create contrast by breaking up this sea of green.
The result is that I’m gradually moving some of the hostas out. The Branching Out hosta has an amazing array of flowers and needs to be away from the group so we can all admire its antlers when they begin to appear.
Tony emphasized that there is no right or wrong: It’s strictly a matter of how it looks to you. The choice of colors, shapes and textures is yours to make if you remember this one word: contrast. 

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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