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The gardener’s palette: Sarah Raven on how to plant for colour

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As a teenager, I used to develop my own photographs and often had the experience of coming out of the darkroom thinking I’d been in there half an hour, but finding that three or four hours had passed.

Absorption, engagement, making, shaping, choosing, ushering something towards a conclusion: those are surely the ingredients of time richly spent and it is exactly that experience that gardening has always given me.

When I garden for a few hours, it always strikes me that for that time I’ve been fully absorbed, not looking at my phone, but doing some (admittedly gentle) physical activity, creating something (even if that’s still in the future with the seeds I’ve sown or planted), engaging the brain a little trying to work out the science of why something might work — or not — and often at the end of it, learning something. That’s a good mix, Covid or no Covid.

I’ve long loved gardening and particularly production, so I can harvest something to bring inside. Picking anything, whether flowers, vegetables, salads or herbs, is easily and instantly rewarding. It ties you to the place, on that day and in that season, which, it seems, is just what more of us want and need. We are living in anxious times but for any of us lucky enough to have outside space, the corona-cloud has had this mindful lining.

Evening light falls over Sarah Raven’s East Sussex garden © Jonathan Buckley

With spring now properly here in the UK and the clocks changed — thank goodness — to give us longer to get stuff done in the evening, it is the perfect moment to sow annuals for garden colour from early summer until the winter falls again.

I garden a one and a half acre plot on a farm in East Sussex and have been trialling flowers for colour and cutting for nearly 30 years. I feel I have got a pretty clear idea which are the reliable stalwarts.

On the flower front, there are certain families that I turn to again and again if I want to flood an area with colour for the whole growing season — and it’s not just the flowers, but all that goes with them that I revel in. With some families, there’s the bonus of scent, with others you’ll add bees or butterflies — and then hopefully a good range of small garden birds to feast on their seeds. The longer I garden, the more I treasure these things.

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And the longer I put flower colour together, the more I find splitting out what I grow into three different palettes seems to make great mixes easier to achieve. It prevents colour howlers.

I am sure you have a favourite colour — most of us do — but individual colour is not the key to a successful colour garden. Colours shouldn’t be on their own. Every colour can be ugly or beautiful depending on what you put with it and that is as true in the garden as anywhere.

What works best is a mix of several different colours — a family, or palette — in one visual frame. Thinking about colour in the garden, playing with it, experimenting with it almost every day of my adult life, it has emerged for me that there are three clear palettes.

Palette no 1: Rich and Brilliant

Dahlia Bishop’s Children and verbena rigida, top recommendations for the Rich and Brilliant palette
Dahlia Bishop’s Children and verbena rigida, top recommendations for the Rich and Brilliant palette © Jonathan Buckley

The first is my original love, the Rich group of conker-brown, almost black, copper, vermilion or red-orange, along with olive-green, emerald, deep purple, indigo and, most of all, crimson. These suck up the light — I think of them as the velvet colours you want to wrap yourself in.

To make them work, you need a splash of Brilliant colours — the colours of boiled sweets: blackcurrant, raspberry, strawberry, orange, lemon, lime or cobalt blue. These tend to be translucent, like stained glass. They are joyful and light on their feet, but you need to take care not to get carried away with them.

If you mix these two families, it always works. Rich on its own is too sombre, needing the spritz of Brilliant — and Brilliant descends into a primary-school classroom jamboree if overdone, but is perfect as a contrast.

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Cosmos Rubenza
Cosmos Rubenza © Jonathan Buckley
Cosmos Dazzler
Cosmos Dazzler © Jonathan Buckley

As far as plants go for this palette, my top recommendation would be dahlia Bishop’s Children growing with verbena rigida. This dahlia is quick and easy and, unusually for this family, grown from seed. It has a mix of single-colour flowers on compact plants with crimson-black foliage. They have quite good vase lives and flower from July until December, with the purple froth of this compact variety of verbena lasting much the same.

For this palette, I’d also go for a carefully chosen pair of cosmos: Dazzler and the slightly darker, richer Rubenza. Again, both are easy from seed, super-floriferous, rich and bright — a winning duo.

There’s no white mixed with the colours in this palette, but plenty in the remaining two. Many of the colours in Rich and Brilliant are the basis there but the white softens the intensity in the second two palettes. They are a softened version with a muted, calm, faded, antique sort of atmosphere.

Palette no 2: Soft and warm

Phlox Cherry Caramel, panicum Sparkling Fountain and zinnia Queeny Red Lime: a lovely mix for the Soft and Warm palette
Phlox Cherry Caramel, panicum Sparkling Fountain and zinnia Queeny Red Lime: a lovely mix for the Soft and Warm palette © Jonathan Buckley

Palette two is what I call the Soft and Warm, where orange, brown, gold and crimson have had plenty of white added to make peach, milky coffee, ivory, apricot (with more yellow in it than peach), soft pink-orange, like a faded coral, and a muted, smoky pink.

For scatter-in soft coppery apricot, a central colour of this palette, I love calendula Sunset Buff with milky coffee petal fronts and crimson reverse. This is easy to grow, germinating from direct sowing in a sunny spot in a week.

Calendula Sunset Buff
Calendula Sunset Buff © GAP Photos/Sarah Cuttle
Helianthus Procut Plum
Helianthus Procut Plum © Jonathan Buckley

Phlox Cherry Caramel or Crème Brûlée are lovely mixed in and if you wait until May, the muted green and crimson faded-tapestry flowers of zinnia Queeny Red Lime, another beautiful addition. And I adore the mushroom soup-coloured sunflower helianthus Procut Plum for a bit of scale and drama.

Palette no 3: Cool

Cosmos Purity with common bishop’s weed
Cosmos Purity with common bishop’s weed © Jonathan Buckley

Finally, for a whole new family of colours, there’s Cool, where purple, blue, blue-green and yellow are mixed with a graduating scale of white to give mauves, soft blues, as well as soft green-blue or eau-de-nil, bluer-pinks, primrose and white going all the way to its purest form.

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For white, there are two mandatory plants in my view. The first is cosmos Purity, or the semi-double version Fizzy White, which, even though it has more petals, is still a-hum with butterflies and bees.

Abyssinian gladiolus
Abyssinian gladiolus © Jonathan Buckley
Gaura The Bride
Gaura The Bride © Jonathan Buckley

For vertical spikes with a gentle scent and presence, acidanthera is your man, a species form of gladiolus, good even before its flowers open.

For pink and white froth from which acidanthera can erupt, I’d go for gaura The Bride or, if you love mauve, petunia x Tidal Wave Silver, flowering from June till November in the garden here last year. You can buy all these things as bulbs, small seedling plugs, or grow them yourself very easily from seed.

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I recommend plumping for one of these three palettes, not a bit from each, as you think about your garden for this summer.

This will give you a garden space to make the spirits soar — and yet, all importantly, hold it back from a liquorice allsorts colour razzmatazz, where too much colour, in a cacophony of competing noise, means you won’t, oddly enough, see any colour at all.

Sarah Raven is a gardener and writer who runs her own gardening company

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