There’s nothing like a healthy dose of hot color to add sizzle to your summer garden. And come mid-July, after the initial flush of spring pastels, flower borders can start looking a little tired. This is the time of year when I like to inject some fiery reds, bright oranges and brilliant yellows into the mix of flowers in my garden. The key is to balance hot colors with cooler ones so that they don’t overpower the other plantings.
What are hot colors exactly? On the primary color wheel, red and yellow are the hot colors.
Secondary colors result when two primary colors are mixed together. Among these blends, orange is also considered hot.
And there are also tertiary colors, which are created by mixing a primary with a secondary color. Colors like red-orange, yellow-orange and all tints and shades of these hues are hot colors.
HOW HOT COLORS WORK IN THE GARDEN
In the garden, red and orange glow more intensely than other colors, especially when the sun is low in the sky. Nature provides us with a perfect example of how the sun’s position affects colors’ intensity. As the sun sets on the horizon, the predominant colors we see are orange, yellow and red. And at sunset, the only remaining visible color is red.
And in the summer garden, just like in nature, the primary color red forms the basis for hot color harmonies.
Andrew Lawson, one of the world’s leading landscape photographers and author of one of my favorite garden books, The Gardener’s Book of Color, has this to say about adding hot colors to your garden:
“By putting together three of the brightest, most intense colors, you increase their vitality and encourage each to ‘sing out’ at full strength. Concentrate these colors together in the garden and sparks seem to fly.”
Red-colored flowers can add fireworks to the summer garden.
And by combining red flowers with yellow and orange and all of the tertiary colors in between, you can infuse your summer garden with vitality and interest.
HOW TO BALANCE HOT COLORS WITH COOL ONES
While it’s clear that red, yellow and orange can be visually uplifting, in strict combination these colors can be anything but restful.
Intense color harmonies can quickly become overpowering if not carefully combined and ‘cooled’ down by other, contrasting colors and foliage. Those contrasting, ‘cooling’ colors, can be found opposite the hot ones on the color spectrum.
In this hot-colored flower border at Cliveden, the color purple in the form of purple-blue salvia pokes its head above cascading drifts of Alchillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’ (Yarrow) and burnt orange Helenium ‘Wyndley’ (Sneezeweed) to create a stunning visual display.
If your summer border is composed mainly of hot colors, Lawson recommends surrounding your red, orange or yellow flowers with deep green hedges or other types of enclosures for maximum impact. The gardeners at Washington, DC’s Hillwood Museum & Gardens do this beautifully. Notice how the deep green hedge provides a solid backdrop to the hot-color flowers while the lighter green ferns and luxurious lawn have a ‘cooling’ effect.
Or, choose dark-colored foliage to tone things down a bit. Great examples include the red-leaved varieties of the shrubs barberry and smoke bush as well as the dramatic purple-black foliage of canna lilies. In this photo I snapped at Hillwood Gardens (below), the plant’s own burgundy-toned foliage provides a cooling contrast to its orange flower.
Another way to offset all those vibrant reds, yellows and oranges in the summer garden is to incorporate purples and blues into your hot-color border. These ‘cool’ colors, found opposite their ‘hot’ cousins on the secondary color wheel, provide a classic color contrast that has been used in gardens for centuries. Spiky blue salvias and veronicas, dark purple delphiniums and lavender-blue perovskia (Russian sage) are just a few good options for setting up these kinds of color contrasts.
The color pink is considered a ‘tint’ of red, or a color that has been lightened by adding white
THE MAGIC OF WHITE
The color white acts as a ‘light’ in the garden. In the hot-color border, small splashes of white can ‘lift’ the garden composition, while providing tonal contrast with other plants. Be careful not to use too much of it, though, or your eye will be attracted only to the white patch to the exclusion of your other hot colors.
In a section of my own hot-colored summer border (below), I use the re-blooming bearded iris ‘Immortality‘ to provide just such a contrast.
Pure white plants like Phlox paniculata ‘David’ and Echinacea purpurea ‘Milkshake’, when used sparingly, can also provide great tonal contrast, while the softer-hued Artemisia lactiflora ’Guizhou’, Gypsophila (Baby’s Breath) and Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank’ deliver subtle lights to the garden.
GREAT HOT COLORED PLANTS FOR THE SUMMER BORDER
Ready to add some great, hot-colored flowers to your summer border? Here are some tried-and-true suggestions.
Purple-leaved Canna ‘Australia’, Chrysanthemum ‘Matchsticks’, Echinacea ‘Hot Papaya’, Gerbera ‘Drakensberg Scarlet’, Hibiscus ‘Fireball’, Lobelia ‘Cardinalis’, Malvaviscus drummondii (Turks’ Cap)and any red dahlia.
Yarrow ‘Coronation Gold’, Daylily ‘Happy Returns’, Daylily ‘Stella d’Oro’, Goldenrod ‘Fireworks’, Oxeye ‘Tuscan Sun’, Coreopsis ‘Zagreb’ and Shasta Daisy ‘Banana Cream’.
Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, Dahlia ‘David Howard’, Daylily ‘Primal Scream Orange’, Lantana ‘Southern Fried’ and Lilium ‘African Queen Group’.
COOL HOT COLORS DOWN WITH THESE PURPLES AND BLUES
Agapanthus ‘Elaine’, Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’, Buddleia ‘Ellen’s Blue’, Nepeta ‘Purple Haze’, Salvia ‘May Night’, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or ‘Victoria Blue’.
Finally, sprinkle in some white flowering plants and sit back and enjoy your hot-color summer border. Happy planting!