In the theatre of gardening, the plants are the stars holding our gaze through the seasons.
o see them at their best, a good backdrop is essential. For most gardens, the background or stage set will be our fences and walls, and often these can be what the builder left behind — unpainted wooden fence panels or bare concrete walls. While foliage and flowers provide a changing kaleidoscope of colours, your background walls and fences are part of the picture too, and there’s no reason why they can’t be gorgeous colours as well.
The received wisdom in garden design is to reserve bright hues for hot countries that are bathed in strong light, such as those in the Mediterranean region and Africa. One of the best examples of this is Le Jardin Majorelle in Morocco.
This remarkable garden was created by a French painter just outside the Medina in Marrakech and is famous for its distinctive use of colour. The main building and all the walls and tanks of water are painted in a cobalt blue, which dances in the blazing Moroccan sunshine. Terracotta pots and urns are painted other shades of blue and yellow. The overall effect is a blue paradise and I always leave this garden with a sense of wonder.
But would this work under our cloudy skies? I love using deep colours such as dark navy or aubergine — which can make a wonderful backdrop to dramatic foliage such as bamboos and tree ferns — and I generally steer away from insipid shades that can look a bit washed out.
My main principle with using colour is… do what you want, break the rules or make your own.
For instance, who would have thought about black as a backdrop to plants? In the US, landscape designer Nick McCullough uses the deepest black to dramatically elegant effect on his home. It’s a definite statement… and his palette of plants that sit against it are planned to contrast with the dark side. His silver border contains astelias, agaves, lavender and santolina, and creates a wonderful effect.
Manoj Malde used bright colours in his 2017 Chelsea Flower Show garden called ‘Beneath a Mexican Sky’. Inspired by the work of Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragán, his colour-washed walls in tints of clementine, coral and cappuccino were uplifting.
Last summer, I decided to tear up the rule book and give it a go. An area under my verandah had recently been clad in clapboard wood and needed painting. Instead of something “tasteful”, I plumped for pink… hot pink!
I’m delighted with the result — it sizzles on a hot day and warms the area on duller days. It’s a superb backdrop for big terracotta pots filled with vivid green ferns. In colour theory, green is the complementary colour to pink, sitting on the opposite side of the colour wheel, and the combination of the two works extremely well.
Colour is a very personal thing so my advice is to pick colours you like and try out different swatches, just as you would indoors. Paint small sections of a wall or fence and place your plants, or features such as pots, in front to see the effect before committing to larger areas.
Observe what’s happening on dull days, in sunshine or rain — all will change the quality and atmosphere. While the weather remains dry, September is a good month to undertake such a project. Have fun!
Plant of the week
Acanthus mollis (bear’s breeches)
Lots of rain and sun have made this a good year for acanthus, with their stately spires of white flowers enclosed in pinky-purple bracts. The Greeks admired the leaves and used their strong architectural shape as garlands on their Corinthian columns.
Could you please let me know whether or not my poinsettia plant will regain its red leaves next winter? I have had it since last Christmas and water regularly. Most of the leaves are now green. — Mrs Byrne
Your poinsettia needs to experience complete darkness for 14 hours a day for at least eight weeks for the leaves to turn red. You can give it a go in October but you will need somewhere you can completely black out light, or cover it with a box and black polythene. During the day, bring the plant back out to good daylight conditions. Commercial growers have the expertise and conditions to do this on a mass scale successfully every Christmas, so alternatively you might just enjoy your nice green poinsettia and buy a red companion for it in December!
Submit your gardening questions to Diarmuid via his Instagram @diarmuidgavin using the hashtag #weekendgarden