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Crazy about colour!

It may sound obvious but colour in the garden can come from both the plants themselves but also the materials that we construct the garden from.  The colours that we choose to use in our gardens can have both personal significance related to our experiences, whether obvious or subconscious memories, but may reflect deeper meanings related to the societies in which we live.  There are also historical associations with certain colours and some have political and religious connotations e.g. red for Labour Day or green for St. Patrick’s Day.  Human beings instinctively assign certain meanings to colours and this can vary between different cultures also.  Our experience of colour is, however, fundamentally a sensory one.

In the Parc Andre Citroen in Paris there is a series of six gardens each of which is associated with a metal, a planet, a day of the week, a state of water, and a sense.  These are arranged with the following colour associations:

  • The blue garden: copper, Venus, Friday, rain, and the sense of smell,
  • The green garden: tin, Jupiter, Thursday, spring water, and the sense of hearing.
  • The orange garden: mercury (the metal), Mercury (the planet), Wednesday, creeks, and the sense of touch.
  • The red garden: iron, Mars, Tuesday, waterfalls, and the sense of taste.
  • The silver garden: silver, the Moon, Monday, rivers, and sight.
  • The golden garden: gold, the Sun, Sunday, evaporation, and the 6th sense.

Each year, on the world’s fashion catwalk, certain colours will be in fashion and this can also permeate into other areas of design and visa-versa.  So certain colours can be “on trend” in the garden.  For quite some time soft pastel colours have been very much in vogue and this relates quite strongly to the use of perennial plants from North America and temperate zones that have been used in planting design.  Yet, we are starting to see a resurgence of more monochromatic colours, strong tropical colours and the like especially in avant-garde design.

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Fashion meets garden design in my Bloom 2011 showgarden where strong colours were the order of the day

But if you are not normally a garish, showy type yet here and there wish to be frivolous you can create subtle compositions by just adding a strong splash or dash of colour to your composition.

Vivid colours can be used, in limited amounts, to create interest or focal points.  And here I am talking about constructed features or hard landscape elements.  Within a soft backdrop of green planting, striking contrasts can be created with coloured fencing, a fancy gazebo or by adding a strong colour to outdoor furniture.  Yet, equally, I am a firm believer in subtle transitions between house and garden and usually I will tend towards trying to marry in the paving choices with the chosen finishes on the house, but that said, there are occasions where a strong contrast can be warranted.  Soft transitions can be created using natural stone or traditional materials such as brick.  Concrete works well with modern buildings but if you are looking to go even outrageous then you could look at creating something chic with coloured concrete, renders, plastic or glass.

Strong colour can be used to bring an object closer within a composition or make it stand out to create a mood or atmosphere.  This was achieved very well with the red ribbon park created by Turenscape projects (Red Ribbon Park).  I also tried to achieve a striking contrast with my red boardwalk, as used at Bloom and then I repeated the idea when I transferred the feature to my parent’s garden in County Kerry.  The boardwalk really stands out against the subtle colours of the surrounding bog land.

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Red boardwalk designed by TIm for his parents’ garden in Kerry – colour contrast deliberate!

If you are neither a colour aficionado nor do you have preferences on colour choices, then how do you pick the right colour for your scheme?  There are few things that you should think about that might enable you to pick up the right colour:

– Consider what the style of the garden is that you would like to create and what you would like to highlight. For example, if your garden is primarily to be used as a funky, contemporary entertainment venue for parties with your friends then you might want to use strong or offbeat colours to highlight your space, you could have brightly coloured walls, or you could use steel or glass as the framework materials.  Conversely, you could opt to have neutral colours and have brightly coloured furniture, cushions etc. as a contrast and to entice your guests into the space.

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Colour co-ordination was important for our client in this Tim Austen back garden project in Clontarf, Dublin

On the other hand, if your preferred style is classical or traditional then usually paler, more natural colours will be the order of the day.  This might also be the case if you are trying to link your garden with a natural landscape in the surrounding environment.

– Function can dictate colour and follows on from the style that you might have selected. In a traditional kitchen garden, the colour of raised beds will be dictated by the materials used on the house and is likely to be brick or stone.  In a modern situation, the owner might with to create vegetable beds from unusual or abstract shapes and bright colours could be used to create a contrast.

– The geographical location of the garden will influence colour choices. In cooler climates, with low light levels, such as in the northern parts of Europe the colours used tend to be soft or neutral with whites, greys and low-key colours used.  This can be the case in Ireland also.  With the low levels of sunshine and a lot of rain softer colours tend to work better.

In warmer climates with bright light hotter colours work well.  In Ireland and the UK, we seek to use Mediterranean colours and plants to transport ourselves away from our own weather situation.  These need to be carefully selected and only used in gardens with appropriate microclimates and aspects. In Ireland greens, pale yellows, greys and soft blues tend to be the natural colours.

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Soft grey colour in the Irish landscape (Tim Austen garden designs project in County Clare)

– The architecture of the house should help to drive colour choices. Some examples from our own project portfolio include:

  • Modern and Clear- Glenageary, South Dublindeck, garden, design, shed, outbuilding, contemporary, planter

  • Classical and Elegant – Malahidegarden, design, gardens, designs, gardening, planting

  • Relaxed and Cheerful – Bloom 2009garden design, contemporary, chic, colourful, patio, deck, lounger, sunny, patio

– The size of the garden can have a bearing on colour choice. Large gardens can more easily tolerate brighter colours, as they won’t necessarily dominate an entire picture whereas in smaller gardens, where everything is visible at once, subtle colour combinations can work well even with some vivid splashes of colour.  However, take care not to pack too much colour into one place: too much visual variance can make a space confusing on the eye and will not be restful on the brain.

– Generally, but not always darker nuances of colour give the illusion of tight space, while light hues give the feeling of bigger space than in reality

– Repeating colour in different part of the garden can help to unify a space and draw the eye around it

– Lights have a great influence on the appearance of the garden. They can show up colours in a different way and set the mood with a cool or warm feeling, and either enhance the proximal or distant perspective.

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Lighting Tim’s Italianate show garden at Bloom in 2013

Finally, as a rule-of thumb if all the above seems a bit bewildering, I recommend going with dull, neutral shades in preference to strong colours if you are not sure.  Happy colouring!

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