I grew up in a small town in the 60s, when Hollywood and Madison Avenue exploded with new colors in movies, television, billboards and magazines. This dazzling visual revolution would be unimaginable today. Snappy colors appeared everywhere; pastels and candy colors seemed to be invented with every consumer rage, from lipsticks to yo-yos. Grown men started wearing colored dress shirts and, even more weird at the time, brightly colored socks. I remember seeing an advertising slogan, “The Sexy Sixties”, of a group of men in absurd looking yellow, orange and red wool socks. But they were trendy for several years, it was quite the thing. This was unheard of and drew glances from the old people. Some people began to look like birds, with exotic ties, scarves and hats. Girls wore sweaters that looked like fireworks displays.These years were exciting. The very light in the air was supercharged. New colors popped up everywhere: plastic objects and fixtures, textiles, clothing, photography, neon signs, bicycles and cars (“candy flake” and “metallic”). My first suit was made of a slightly iridescent fabric called “sharkskin”. Already fanciful, the local ice cream parlor grew peacock feathers. The color explosion was liberating. For a few years, the entire country was caught up in the sophisticated application of new technology in color that stimulated new places in our brains. It was as if our small town had been relocated to Southern California with its flashy cars and sunshine. The color revolution was “directional”: we were supposed to feel free, excited, and joyful. That was the point! And flowers played a big role. The sixties sprouted and bloomed. The rapidly growing country broke free of its past.
Painters, photographers, creative designers and moviemakers seemed to skillfully introduce the vibrant, intense colors gradually, so as to avoid excess or overexposure. They glowed and brightened up our young lives. Adults seemed to love them too. To varying degrees, everyone revered and embraced change. Freedom became “free”– more than a catchword. Sex became “sexy”. Although there remained a long list of forbidden words and taboo behaviors, it became easier to live with. The yokes around our necks became as brightly painted as the oxcarts you see in tropical countries where the world seems new, like life has just started. New colors were signs of our progress.
I was raised in a large and successful bedding and potted plant “business family”. I was surrounded by nature’s strongest colors, 24/7. We breathed, ate and slept the business. Beginning the summer before junior high (7th and 8th grades in Illinois), Dad put me to work in the cut flower headhouse (at the end, or “head”, of a greenhouse, where the “dirty work” is done without contaminating the clean environment of the glass houses). I cut the ends off the rough stems of roses and tied them into bundles. The actual greenhouse, where the plants grew, was no place for beginners. Only well-trained staff worked there, but I was allowed to pass through. The plants and flowers were stunning to see for the first time. I’ll never forget the giant caverns of luminous cineraria and calceolaria, the long and deep tunnels of light filled with the exquisite pastel colors that only primulas can produce, the thousands of “flats” (shallow wooden trays) filled with sugar cookie sized petunias in fantastic colors never seen before. Soon this became normal and I began to notice unusual colors everywhere. This early exposure to the color revolution affected my life and work.
Colors in the garden should reflect and reinforce one’s tastes. I, for one, prefer arousal to contentment, gamboling to grazing. Although I enjoy both, I find that excitement appeals to me more than happiness. Bright colors have a powerful presence, so they need very little space to be effective. Or you can make a big splash with them in massed beds. I prefer the latter. I’m happiest working in a five-acre field of experimental petunias.
The best “song” to play with colors is a harmonic one— and there is no end to harmonies if you practice. Here are a few tunes, so to speak, that I have found pleasing.
-Try Agastache ‘Firebird’ near Crocosmia ‘Blaze’ in full sun, and then extend similar sensations to the shade with Primula bulleesiana. Wild, energetic flashes and sparkles of orange-scarlet, orange and yellow shades play between these unique cultivars.
-For contemplative moodiness that mixes both intrigue and rest, try Pulsatilla vulgaris – fringed petaled, with Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’.
-Try a small group of Chelone ‘Hot Lips’ in partial shade, spotted round with white dwarf-type Impatiens and Coleus whose rose and burgundy leaves both contrast the white and complement the pink florets of the Chelone. You’ll hear joyous music from a limited space.
-For a spiky interplay of verticals, try Silene regia ‘Prairie Fire’with Persicaria affinis ‘Border Jewel’ for their colors, textures and heights.
-Some cultivars make a memorable music that is all their own. Rosa glauca is the best bushy “wild” rose, with its ruggedly handsome displays and, on a hot summer day, delicious aroma that wafts in the air. If you have room, try a similar type that climbs rather than bushes, Rosa ‘Gloire de Dijon’.. They will play off each other well if spaced apart, taking into consideration the rest of your plants and your lines of sight. Just one of each will give a vivid show as well as envelope your garden with a delightful perfume.