Landscape design Perennials

Gertrude and her Color Schemes

For a gardener, winter is a time for planning! You get a break from weeding, but it’s also the period when the brain is bubbling and has lots of time to think about… your gardening projects for the next year! Move a plant, create a new flower bed, replace a non performing perennial.

Gertrude Jekyll had this grand talent for color harmony. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s an interesting book that could be a great inspiration for your future flower beds: “Color Schemes for the Flower Garden” by Gertrude Jekyll. First published in 1908, this text had a great influence on my approach to garden design. It radically changed my way of creating what could be described as beautiful landscaping. Let’s be clear, landscaping hasn’t been the main part of my career in horticulture and I have no claim to hold THE recipe for creating beautiful flower gardens, but what this dear Gertrude shares in this book will make you see the layout differently.

Gertrude who?

But first, a quick word about Gertrude Jekyll. Born in 1843 of a wealthy family in England, Gertrude Jekyll was first and foremost a painter and it was her passion for colors that gradually led her to take an interest in plants and the ways to harmonize them. For many, she is considered the mother of the English mixed borders. During her career as a landscaper, she created more than 400 gardens and wrote ten books, including “Color Schemes”. She is therefore one of the great ladies of English gardens and her influence is still felt in residential landscaping all over the world.

Gertrude Jekyll in the Deanery Garden, around 1901. Image: Heritage Calling.

Gertrude and the Wow! Effect

The very first thing that strikes you when reading “Color Schemes” is that it’s nothing more than a walk in her gardens, through the seasons. The time of early bulbs, the spring garden, the garden between spring and summer, the June garden, the mixed borders of July, etc. Through this journey, she presents us with the successes of her arrangements and approaches, almost plant by plant, what grows well together and what doesn’t. Surprisingly, what struck me the most while reading “Color Schemes” is how Gertrude reveals to us how each section of her garden has its peak period . She goes all in!

Lupines and irises are giving all they got at Munstead Wood, in June. That’s the Wow! effect. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In most landscaping courses, we are taught to ensure that the flowerbed is blooming in all seasons. On the contrary, Gertrude says: “Only put in plants that flower in May!” For me, it was the shock and to think about it mathematically, she is right! If, in a flower bed, I make sure to have 30% of the plants which flower in the spring, 30% of the plants which flower in the summer and 30% of the plants which flower in the fall, at ALL TIMES, I finds itself with a third of a flower bed. Everything else is green! And green dominates. Which means that this flower bed can never be spectacular and make us wow! It just stays pretty. Instead, Gertrude invites us to create flowerbeds with seasonal themes, so that everyone has a Wow moment! In front of the house, slightly in the shade, where rhododendrons grow well? The Wow! of spring, with masses of bulbs, trilliums, moss phlox (Phlox subulata), etc. Near the terrace in full sun? Everything that blooms in July! And on the side of the entrance, always in the sun? A large clump of fall-flowering plants!

Of course, concentrating your blooms by flowering period requires a great knowledge of plants. It is necessary to know exactly what blooms at the same time. Even if there is a certain chronological order in the flowering periods, it must be kept in mind that the flowering periods vary according to the place where you garden! For example, Ms. Jekyll praises bulbs which bloom in March, whereas here in northern Quebec, in March, we are still covered in snow!

In short, for the spring border, Gertrude grows an intensive planting of bulbs through a collection of ferns, accompanied by beds of rhododendrons, daphne and heather (Calluna spp.) under large magnolias.

Then at the other end of the seasonal spectrum are piled up Japanese anemones (Eriocapitella hupehensis, formerly Anemone hupehensis), different species of fall asters (Aster spp.), fall sedums, pyrethrums and phlomis which will peak in September. She adds a few dahlias which will flower intensely until the first frosts.

Each section of the garden becomes, at one point, the show stopper!

Gertrude and the Harmony of Colors

Being an artist sensitive to the Arts and Craft movement, it goes without saying that all notions of rhythm, harmony and balance are at the heart of Gertrude’s work. Her theory on the harmony of colors in the garden is one of her greatest accomplishments. It’s here that she explains how she concentrates the colors in the same sector of a flower bed to make them slide towards other shades, a little like the colors of the rainbow slide from one tone to another.

She showcases the effect a flower bed can have when it begins with shades of gray, gliding into pale colors to culminate in bright, dark colors. It underlines how much a touch of light yellow can enhance a bed dominated by blue and mauve flowers. She warns us against the monotony of monochrome gardens. Sometimes a garden of blue flowers is dying to welcome a beautiful clump of white lilies! Moreover, Gertrude’s texts are generously illustrated with period photographs and especially detailed plans of her flowerbeds!

The orange garden, on of the many plans reproduced in Gertrude’s book. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Picturesque Moments According to Gertrude

Finally, Gertrude often compares the plants in the garden to a color palette for painters. You can have a very nice selection of plants, but if you don’t know how to arrange them, it’s like having very expensive color tubes and using them to draw stick figures! It’s all in the composition and in the art of creating portraits. Basically, what Gertrude is saying is that she arranges the plants in the garden in such a way that it looks good when taken in picture. It’s in this sense that she uses the word picturesque. It’s necessary to create scenes and arrangements that are pleasing to the eye. In short, if you can put a photo of the flower bed on Instagram, it’s a success! A successful flower bed according to Gertrude is therefore a series of photographs linked to each other. And here lies the difference between an arrangement of plants and a horticultural work of art!

Hestercombe, in Taunton in Great Britain, is one of the rare gardens conceived by Gertrude, that has been restored. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

All this leads us to think to carefully choose and arrange our plants so that the whole forms a grandiose work. And, the inevitable first step of a good flower bed design: planning. Winter is the perfect time, herbal tea in hand, to surround ourselves with books (or websites) and develop our next horticultural opus on grid paper. And, even if her work dates back more than 100 years, Gertrude remains a great source of ideas and inspiration.

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

6 comments on “Gertrude and her Color Schemes

  1. Of course, no matter how much planning you do in winter, you will find there are things that need changing as the design grows and develops. This, to me, is the great fun of ornamental gardening–the tinkering. So yes, the more you already know about plants, the better, but don’t let ignorance stop you! You learn by trying! And there’s nothing wrong with going plant shopping with “something that blooms yellow in July, about 2 feet tall” on your list, and then seeing what’s available locally.

  2. Christine Lemieux

    I do have beds that have different schemes, like the “pink, blue and white bed”, where I try to have many things blooming at once. And one that I think of as being my “spring bed”. But it never occurred to me to take this further and congregate fall bloomers together, for example! Thanks for giving me lots of food for thought!

  3. Russ Clark

    Obviously producing beautiful gardens is not new.
    The picture above would indicate that she had an excellent sense how colours complement one another and the article indicates how this evolved across the flowering season. However, the layout and structure of this particular garden would indicate a certain influence of French style, something not always present in English ones where perpendicularity and symmetry are usually less evident.
    It certainly makes me think about what I might be able to work on next summer.

  4. Loved this post so much! Thanks for adding a bit of color and history to our day.

  5. Being that I had an English rose master gardener in my ancestry, maternal grandmother rose gardener, and paternal aunt a president of the garden club in her New Jersey town, I love this on many levels! Beautiful!

  6. The photo of Hestercombe makes a gardener’s pulse quicken.

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