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Gardening | IN THE GARDEN

Taste Counts in Selecting Flower Color

June 21, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

I recently read an article, in a publication from one of our better nurseries, about the death of pastel colors in the garden and how some gardeners are "trying to get the pink out."

"Been there, done that," one said about pink gardens.

On the same day, I read an article about iguanas in The Times and how some owners have become bored with their former pets and want to be rid of them. Dalmatians suffered a similar fate, as I recall, and potbellied pigs.

I'm not suggesting that we set up a shelter for plants no longer loved that happen to be "mauve, lavender, white or pink," the colors mentioned in this article as being passe.

Plants are not pets, and one of the most famous quotes in gardening, from the pen of Vita Sackville-West, suggests that "the true gardener must be brutal."

"Gardening is largely a question of mixing one sort of plant with another sort of plant," she said. "If you see that they don't marry happily, then you must hoick one of them out and be quite ruthless about it."

That's what compost piles are for. Plants that don't make the grade get recycled back into soil. I'm sure the gardeners quoted in the article I was reading are simply being adventuresome, trying out new plants and new colors. They do not think of their gardens as wardrobes that can be worn with pride one day and given to Goodwill the next.

I've changed the look of my little garden several times and am in the midst of doing so again. You grow as a gardener, so what used to look good no longer does and you just keep finding plants you can't live without.

This should not be confused with trendy--that orange can be in and pink out--which is not what Sackville-West was talking about. Our gardens shouldn't go out of style every few years; it takes that long to grow one.

For that matter, they should never be in style. It would be nice if gardens had no hint of faddishness. Someone once remarked that there are no fashion police in the world of gardening.

Sackville-West was talking about taking out plants because they didn't go together, about the challenge of blending plants as wonderfully as nature does. In nature, you'll find pink and orange growing on the same grassy slope, and probably blue and purple and yellow too.

What nature does so effortlessly, the gardener discovers by trial and error.

We try to visualize how this will look with that, but often it doesn't turn out as expected or as hoped. You must "hoick" out the plant that offends and move it to another spot, give it to a friend or compost it.

This process has nothing to do with whether a plant is pink or orange. It has to do with whether pink goes with orange, and it often doesn't.

The article pointed out that pastel colors can look bleached in our Mediterranean sun, though it might have added that this is more likely on the east side of town than on the often-overcast coastal side.

Right now, there is precious little sun anywhere, and pinks and lavenders seem to glow in the prevailing gray misty light, which is perhaps why so many spring-blooming plants are pink and lavender. They're quite visible to bees, birds and gardeners at this time of year.

When Louisa Jones, who lives in Provence and writes about gardens there, visited Los Angeles, she was most amazed at our overcast skies, a condition unknown in the true Mediterranean (she was also amazed at the tremendous variety of plants we can grow).

When the sun becomes intense in midsummer and glows orange in fall, there is little point in having pastels. That's the time for sunflowers, golden coreopsis, zinnias and ripe, red tomatoes. Fortuitously, that's when these plants are in color.

I have always thought that if I were clever enough, my whole garden would switch from pastels to hot colors right along with the seasonal shifts: cool in spring, hot in summer.

Some plants will go along with my scheme. The pink sun roses, the mauve alstroemerias and the pink geraniums in my garden flower mostly under overcast skies. The lavender and purple agapanthus (and the jacarandas on the next street) bloom just in time for June's gloom.

Golden coreopisis, orange tithonias and red-hot sages and agastaches wait for summer's warmth.

But many plants can't be compressed into one season. Roses, for instance, bloom spring through fall, even into winter--in all kinds of light--and a gorgeous pink in spring can look overly laundered in summer. An orange rose may be brilliant in summer but a trifle out of place in spring when so many pink flowers are up.

Foliage can settle these color differences. Just allowing a little flower-free green space between feuding plants helps, though you can go one step further.

Colored foliage can make strident combinations downright harmonious. I'm thinking of the gray foliage of Plectranthus argentatus or the chartreuse of Helichrysum "Limelight" or the reddish-bronze of coleus.

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