by Don Statham
photography by the author
People often ask me how to make their gardens look natural. The “less is more” approach is closer to what we see in nature and there are several possible ways to achieve this. One method is to choose a limited number of plants and repeat them throughout the planting; however, another solution I am suggesting here is to limit the colors of the flowering plants you choose for the flower border. By selecting just a few colors you allow the eye to connect the repeating colors and thereby create harmony in the garden. When you see one of those crazy plantings in late summer with a million hot colors they often look disjointed. With this idea in mind, therefore, I want to focus on the color blue which I think is one of the most attractive colors in the garden.
Blue is the color of the sky and sea. Research has shown that light blue slows human metabolism, and is considered generally beneficial to mind and body. Ironically, blue is also the preferred color for corporate America. Dark blue represents knowledge, power, integrity, and seriousness. When I was an artist (painter) and would lay large areas of blue on the canvas the result would be that the color would recede and make the colors next to it pop forward. Blue seems to be a color that works with all other colors.
Density of color plays an important role in how the eye sees. Whether it is a large swath of color or small dabs the result will be very different. When blue is placed next to white the palette remains cool and the blue predominates; but when blue is placed next to yellow it recedes and the palette is warmer. When small dabs of blue sit near red or orange it enhances the hot color, making them more vibrant. Understanding how colors work is essential to laying out the plants in a pleasing way. A friend’s son asked her “Why is the sky blue?” and she came up with the best answer I’ve ever heard to this question: “Because blue goes so well with green.”
Here are some of my favorite blue flowering bulbs. The earliest of blues is Scilla, the small spring bulb with pure blue-purple flowers. Scillas are extremely hardy and continue to spread wherever you plant them. The grape hyacinth (Muscari), a native of southern France, looks terrific near tulips of any color. Anyone who has seen a bluebell wood in England knows how beautiful the dappled light is dancing over thousands of flowering bluebells. English bluebells are sadly not hardy enough for our area of the Catskills, but luckily Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides ‘Excelsior’) are and will make a very adequate substitute for their English cousin.
Camassia, another bulb worth planting over a large area, is a North America native. Belonging to the lily family it is sometimes called “wild hyacinth.” This tall flowering perennial bulb reaches a height of 50 inches and does well in damp places and looks terrific near a pond or stream.
Wild violets come into flower shortly after hyacinths. The blue ones lack perfume and are quite invasive, but I always love where they put themselves and it is good to have rogue plants to surprise us.
The early flowering blue perennials begin with columbine (Aquilegia) and there are many shades of blue, violet and purple to choose from. Other flowers for a blue border are common flax, which we see growing along our highways. The smoky blue is so lovely against its gray green leaves. Popular through the ages you can see this plant in old tapestries and many an English verse contains references to this wonderful plant.
The campanula family is a must for the blues fan. Campanula persicifolia and Campanula punctata ‘Sarastro’ add a magical blue bell-shaped flower to the border. Massed in groups repeating through the border they add a lovely tint of blue or purple. The showiest bell flower of all is the Platycodon grandiflorium (a.k.a balloon flower). There are many varieties of campanula to choose from, including small ground covers to very tall ones.
Many herbs have small blue flowers, such as bugle (ajuga reptens), borage (Borage officinalis), viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), woad (Isatis tinctoria), but the star has to be common sage. The beautiful ladder-like leaf of Jacob’s ladder is such a great texture and the blue bell flowers are so delicate.
What are the bluest flowers in the garden? Perhaps it is gentian, or forget-me-not, or could it be Centaurea or the common larkspur? Oliver Wendell Holmes had his own favorites: “Larkspur, lifting turquoise spires, bluer than the sorcerer’s fires.”
Bachelor buttons come to my mind, as does Spanish bluebell and the common speedwell growing wild in the meadows of New York State. Many think chicory is the bluest of the flowers. One of my favorite blues is the common lupine and there are several hues of blue from light to dark with this plant. I prefer to keep the grouping just to the different shades of blues. I am not a fan of the hot pink- or salmon-colored lupines although I am sure they have their place, just not in my garden! I bought lupine seed and planted several rows in my vegetable garden and after a year I transplanted hundreds of them into an area along my drive. The impact of a mass planting of lupines in flower is quite stunning. James Russell Lowell evokes this: “Sweet atmosphere of hazy blue, So leisurely, so soothing, so forgiving, That sometimes makes New England fit for living.”
Irises have hundreds of color combinations from which to choose, but the simple blue ones are such a bonus to the garden. My favorite blue perennial which has been recently introduced is a wildflower from Arkansas called Amsonia hubrichtii ‘blue ice.’ This is a true blue. There is also a pale, almost white-blue Amsonia taberaemontana called ‘Eastern Blue Star,’ which is known for its willowy leaves. The geranium family has many blues to choose from and each variety flowers at slightly different times: geranium — Johnson’s blue or G. Roseanne, or G. Brookside — to name a few. Geraniums bloom for a long period of time and have been known to self-seed into the wilder parts of the garden, too.
In midsummer the silvery blue spiky flowers of Aconitum (monkshood) tower above most perennials, commanding all the attention, but down low along the ground Nepeta catmint ‘Sixhills Giant’ spills into the pathways adding a splash of blue to the border that last well into the fall. There are also many varieties of salvias and lavender to choose from, although Munstead lavender is considered the hardiest. In late summer into fall, meadows come alive with asters. There are several colors of wild asters from blue, lilac, and white flowering varieties. This is one wildflower I have helped get a strong foothold into my garden, especially around my pond. Each year I collect the seed and spread it along the pond’s bank. The waves of blue asters clash beautifully with the burning red leaves of autumn.
Besides blue flowers there are many plants that have blue leaves, such as Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans.’ The bold leaves add an architectural element to the border and the color blue breaks up the monotony of all the greens. There are many sedums that have blue leaves, and grasses like Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ are a metallic blue. Rosa glauca has powdery blue leaves and small pink flowers, but most gardeners plant it for its foliage. Salix (arctic willow) is a beautiful willow shrub with very fine blue leaves. Caryopteris has blue-tinged leaves and a blue flower.
When Gertrude Jekyll, the English garden designer, made a white garden she did not strictly plant white flowers but added a touch of blue here and silver there. She found that a splash of primary color helps to enhance the white planting. In my own garden, which is comprised of mixed colored borders, it’s an ongoing battle to get right the timing of flowering plants and the relationship to color. Each spring I dig up dozens of perennials and move them about. I take notes and photos throughout the summer and these serve as my record. Gardening can be very obsessive, but it can also be playful and there’s nothing like adding a few of “the blues” to jazz things up! photos of blue flowering perennials.