How friends and lovers improve your summer garden colour

June 9th, 2019
Posted In: Garden trends & design

Artist Liz Bradley’s summer garden colour inspires her watercolour paintings.

So I thought about colour theory from another artist, Marc Chagall, as I walked around Liz’s garden.

Chagall had a colour rule about ‘friends and lovers’. It makes choosing colour easier, whether you’re talking about painting or garden colour.

Let’s look at Liz’s garden first, before we get onto ‘friends and lovers’ colour theory.

Her garden is a beautiful English country garden, of about an acre, with sweeping daisy-studded lawns broken up by abundant borders. When she moved in, it was more or less an open lawn, so she’s added large generous borders to divide the garden up.

Liz Bradley divides up her garden with big borders

One of the big, deep borders Liz added to her lawn to break the garden up into areas. She refers to this as her ‘Cotswolds border, with pinks and blues.’

‘For me, the garden is all about colour,’ she says.

Liz Bradley's bantam hens

Liz’s bantam hens following her back to the hen coop at night.

The theory of garden colour

Artists like Liz have an instinctive understanding of how colour works, but the rest of us sometimes need a little help. Understanding the theory of colour really does help when deciding what to plant and where to plant it.

It’s based on the colour wheel. In colour theory, there are three primary colours – red, green and blue. Combined together they make white.

Understand the colour wheel for successful summer garden colour

Understand the colour wheel for successful summer garden colour – this border is mainly yellow and green, which are harmonious on the colour wheel.

I had a brief but spirited discusssion with Mr Middlesize about this. He says that we were told at school that primary colours were red, yellow and blue. However, primary colours in terms of camera, film and computer are red, green and blue.

And the colour wheel works in the same way whichever theory you prefer. I’m sure there’s an explanation somewhere but it doesn’t make much difference to those of us who are just planning our summer garden colour.

Blue loosestrife and green euphorbia are harmonious on the colour wheel

Nature is often very good at following colour theory rules – here the green euphorbia and blue spires of blue loosestrife are both self-seeded and they sit beautifully together.

Secondary colours are created by mixing two primary colours together. They are cyan, magenta and yellow. Colours can also be ‘hot’ or ‘cool.’ The orange/red side of the wheel is ‘hot’ and the blue side is ‘cool.’

Marc Chagall’s ‘friends and lovers’

Artist Marc Chagall has a brilliant explanation for how to choose successful colour combinations. It works just as well in gardens as in painting.

In colour theory, colours that are close to each other on the colour wheel are harmonious. Chagall calls them ‘friends.’ Friends always work well together.

Blue and green border for harmonious summer garden colour

This border in Liz Bradley’s garden is predominantly greens and blues – ‘friends’ who are close to each other on the colour wheel. There is also a mound of soft pink next to the blue – they’re still ‘friends’.

The colours opposite each other on the wheel, such as yellow and purple, contrast with each other. They’re called complementary. Each has qualities that the other does not. Chagall calls these contrasting colours ‘lovers’.

Lovers, after all, may often complement each other, but they also create high drama together. They can look fantastic or they can end up shouting at each other.

Yellow and purple flowers contrast with each other

Summer garden colour ‘lovers’: Liz Bradley’s yellow aquilegia (self-seeded) and purple Wallflower ‘Bowles Mauve’ are opposites on the colour wheel. They make a striking contrast.

Friends are harmonious and pleasant. Lovers equate to high drama in the garden.

So what does this mean for summer garden colour?

The ‘friends and lovers’ theory is also helpful when you’re thinking about whether you need more colour in your summer border – or perhaps less?

After all, you can have lots of friends, but life gets rather difficult if you have too many lovers, especially if they’re all in the same bed at once. Keep your lovers away from each other, even in the garden. But if a border is looking dull, maybe you need to pep it up with a lover, or a clump of contrasting colours?

Orange honeysuckle and blue solanum contrast with each other.

Lovers: A beautiful orange-hued honeysuckle from Great Dixter and a blue solanum in Liz’s garden – opposite each other on the colour wheel. Adding in more colour could be just too vibrant.

Don’t forget that green is a colour

In colour theory, it’s generally considered that the ideal number of colours is three. In a flower border, one of those colours is green. It’s worth looking at a border or a patch of a border and asking yourself if there are too many colours in it?

Liz uses alot of different interesting foliage in her borders, which offers variety and interest without creating too much high drama. Even the darkest leaves have green in them, so foliage is generally harmonious, but you can have lots of variation of green too. So you get harmony and variety.

A peaceful green and yellow colour theme for a summer path

This path is very shady, but Liz has made it interesting by using several different greens plus yellow. They’re all ‘friends’ – although the pop of yellow adds light.

Use foliage colour to improve your garden colour schemes

Much of the colour in Liz’s garden come from variation in foliage, and this creates a very harmonious effect. Lots of ‘friends!’

And white is a colour too

I saw very little white in Liz’s garden, but in one corner she has a wholly white bed to make the most of her beautiful old beams and white-washed walls.

White on white summer garden colour

White on white is always a charming summer garden colour scheme. White roses on a white wall – what could be more delightful?

While white can be lovely, it can also be a difficult element to add into a summer border. I have one very talented but outspoken garden designer friend who refers to borders with lots of different colours plus white as ‘fruit salad gardens.’ White is probably most effective when it’s on its own.

But colour theory rules aren’t for everyone. It’s your garden and if breaking the rules of colour theory makes you happy, then that’s all that matters. I think it’s interesting to look at rules and theories to see if they’re helpful. And if they’re not, we can ignore them.

See more of Liz Bradley’s garden in video

I think you can see more of a garden in video, so do check out more of Liz’s pretty English country garden here:

More about summer garden colour

There are several excellent books on garden colour. (Note: links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure. Other links are not affiliate.)

Gardening TV presenter Nick Bailey’s book 365 Days of Colour in Your Garden is an award-winning guide to year-round colour.

And my two favourite books on garden colour are The Bold and Brilliant Garden by Sarah Raven and the famous Christopher Lloyd’s Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners, now only available second-hand (Amazon has copies, and you could also try other second-hand book sites such as Abe Books or even Oxfam’s second hand online bookseller.

And the RHS has a detailed look at garden colour and the plants to choose in The RHS Colour Companion: A Visual Dictionary of Colour for Gardeners.

More about Liz Bradley’s paintings

Liz Bradley’s vibrant watercolours are painted on thick creamy paper, and the colours are built up slowly. So they have a depth and intensity that is unusual in watercolours. She has been an artist all her life, but is self-taught. They’re available from Liz Bradley online or from Creek Creative Galleries.

Bantam hens painted by Elizabeth Bradley

Liz also paints her bantam hens.

Pin to remember summer garden colour tips

Soft pinks, blues and greens in summer garden colour

Liz has what she calls ‘her Cotswolds border’, in soft pinks, blues and greens.


4 comments on "How friends and lovers improve your summer garden colour"

  1. Jan B says:

    The Christopher Lloyd book Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners is my absolute favourite – his writing is every bit as delightful as his sense of colour and design. I am always reading it – I get to the end and then just start again. It’s not often a book does that for you, is it?

    1. It is one of my favourites, too.

  2. This garden is absolutely amazing! I think the gardening is an art, so we should think about combining the colors, indeed. Thanks a lot for the advices!

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