Even in these enlightened days in which your average home gardener can see the beauty and season-stretching power of foliage and textural seed-heads, there’s no denying that flowers make up about 95% of why we garden.
That said, I’m putting forth the case for some inorganic colour. It’s great when flowers are thin, fabulous for backing up whatever thin floral colour you have, and not a bad alternative if you can’t be bothered with flowers at all.
Check out Diarmuid Gavin’s controversial Chelsea garden of 2004 (above).
The only thing in flower is that modest geranium in the foreground. There’s great foliage, admittedly, and a strong sense of enclosure – you know you’d feel really embraced in that garden – but the only real colour is from those crazy vitreous enamel balls floating overhead, the pod in the background, and that orange plastic chair.
In the same year, Dan Pearson designed (characteristically) an altogether more subtle garden, but it, too, depended on colour from painted cane stools to back-up the modest colour contribution made by wildflowers. (Apologies for the pic – I wasn’t really into digital photography at the time, and the best I have are on 35mm slide, which I can’t show. Along with the orange stools up the back was a single pink one, matching the colour of the foreground flowers. They were altogether more prominent than this photo suggests)
A year or two later, a client and I were trying to think of a way of introducing colour to her garden without adding flowers (she’s not big on flowers, and cuts the buds off her Wisteria every spring). It was at the end of that passing fashion for mulching with crushed coloured glass, and we were wanting something bolder, anyway.
We cooked up a plot to mulch all of her courtyard pots in tomato-red marbles. The effect was sensational.
Several years later the same client decided that she’d do the same with blue marbles, elsewhere in the garden. I wasn’t sure about this, and expressed my concern about too much variation on a theme, and the desire to stick with what we had. As is frequently the case, I was wrong, and they worked really well.
Come to think of it, the original thought regarding inorganic colour additives pre-dates the Diarmuid Gavin garden, and traces back to a talk given by the incomparable Dan Hinkley back in 1999. He showed us a pic of an outrageously coloured Allium christophii seed-head, and after gasps of admiration and envy admitted that he’d spray painted it. The next winter, I hit a great sweep of rudbeckia seed-heads with the remaining contents of several cans of flouro marker paint. It was totally beserk, but completely un-photograph-able. At the very least it made me laugh out loud, and in a Woodend winter, that’s quite an achievement.