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TONAL VALUES

(published in the May 2000 issue of The English Garden magazine)

I remember when I first became aware of nature's impeccable colour sense: I was standing in the bath leaning out over the sill cleaning the window. Below me in our Islington town garden was the ubiquitous garden shed. This was 1986 and we'd moved in just a couple of years before. In a flurry of garden activity I'd rushed out and, glancing at the plant labels, had grabbed a "woody, self-supporting, semi-evergreen climber" which sounded as if it would be just the job for lounging against and over the shed. Of course, since then it had been quietly growing away in the corner and obviously was only now substantial enough for me to be bowled over (whilst clinging to the window frame) with this painting lesson below me.

What was amazing me was not so much the quantity or shape of the flowers but rather the colour combination. Deep in the centre of the rich purple-blue petals of the starry flowers of Solanum crispum 'Glasnevin' protruded perfectly contrasting yolk-yellow anthers. En masse the golden flecks hovered above a billowing sea of dark violet. What made me chortle with even more delight was the realisation that soon this effect was going to be heightened even more. Nestling up to the Solanum was a Fremontodendron 'Californian Glory' whose furry buds had started to peel open. The large flat saucer-shaped flowers of glossy satin were the exact same shade of yellow as the Solanum centres and I could see that the shed was going to be pulsating with zing and pizazz for the rest of the summer.

I would like to be able to say that this pairing had been carefully planned but at least I learned from it and have since repeated it when we moved to Wiltshire and also used it in many planting plans for client's garden - the photo of my London shed selling the sizzling combination if any doubt existed.

What was particularly brought home to me that time was how important it is to consider tonal values when using blue and yellow which are opposites on the colour wheel. Nature had used the same intensity of yellow to balance the strong blue of the Solanum, and the equally powerful Fremontodendron only enhanced the colour experience. This depth of hue can also be seen in Crocus tommasinianus boosted by Eranthis hyemalis and also Meconopsis cambrica next to Hyacinthoides nonscriptus.

At the other end of the tonal scale, looking to nature again for an example I observe that Thalictrum delavayi's tiny washed-lilac flowers have been given clusters of palest lemon stamens - a perfect balance. Ranging through gradations of tones, other satisfying man-made juxtapositionings are Corydalis flexuosa underneath the unfurling leaves of Cornus controversa 'Variegata'), Clematis 'Perle d'Azur' twining with Humulus lupulus 'Aureus' and Narcissus with Muscari.

Generally then, when considering placing yellow and blue together, be guided by their tonal values. If I'm not sure about a combination, I put the two candidates in front of a neutral backgroup and half close my eyes. Squinting in this way immediately shows up any imbalance.

This equality of tone 'rule' generally works if both colours are desired in balanced amounts - not necessarily equal amounts but, as in the Solanum/Fremontodendron situation, at least in a one to three relationship. The colour masses can then be used in a pointilist way such as Myosotis spangled with lemon yellow tulips or used in a cubist manner with bold individual blocks of colour.

However, although blue and yellow often perform a charming and well-loved duet, their own individual voices should also be heard. I love Nori Pope's observation: "...it would be possible to plant John Coltrane's 'Lazy Bird' using the dissonances of of blue, but I would need the major key of yellow for Mahler's Second Symphony." (Colour by Design published by Conran Octopus).

Blue sits easily in the landscape blurring hazily into the distance increasing the sense of spaciousness - hence the classic use of this colour to make a border seem longer or to melt a garden boundary. Its mood is pensive and gentle; it calms and cools.

Yellow is perceived by the eye most readily before other colours and can be enliving but not so envigorating as to distract. In Waldorf schools which are based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner (known to gardeners for his theories of biodynamic agriculture) classrooms are painted yellow to focus the mental activity of young teenagers - not that I was aware of that when I was at the Edinburgh Waldorf School!

So, yellow can boost that part of the garden which is most conducive to a state of alertness, or at least awakeness. I would think about using it as a key colour around an al fresco eating area or to be viewed from the summerhouse-office-workshop, but perhaps not around the hammock.

In all cases, though, a fleck of the opposite colour will always intensify the saturation level of the main colour and this time the tone need not be the same. A pale flicker of light yellow dabbed through vibrant violets and deep blues seems to make them even richer.

I know there are some who abhor yellow in the garden but even they cannot deny the essential role it plays in bringing an extra dimension to the colour blue. So for them, strategically placed highlights such as the yellow flowers atop the glaucous foliage of Ruta graveolens will accent their blue border. Whilst those who bask in their sunny borders will be grateful for a contrasting backdrop of Ceonothus.

Copyright Christina Oates

I HOPE YOU FOUND THIS ARTICLE INTERESTING AND HELPFUL BUT, AS USUAL, PLEASE NOTE THAT ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED AND NO PART OF THIS PUBLICATION MAY BE REPRODUCED, STORED IN A RETRIEVAL SYSTEM, OR TRANSMITTED, IN ANY FORM OR BY ANY MEANS, ELECTRONIC, MECHANICAL, PHOTOCOPYING, RECORDING OR OTHERWISE WITHOUT THE PRIOR WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR.

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