I’ve had a strange relationship with burgundy foliage for the last five years. In 2010, I tried to buy a purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria) at my local Bunnings, only to be told, by a sixty-something man, that I would really struggle to find one anywhere, they were very unfashionable, after all. As the youngest person in the entire nursery, to say that I was indignant at having my taste challenged was a bit of an understatement.
But, secretly, it did make me stop and think. Were they really unfashionable? Why would that be? Both the foliage and flowers have quite unique, and I thought stunning, textures. Was it the colour?
It didn’t stop me long enough to prevent my stubbornness kicking in and make me determined to not only find a smoke bush, but to use it to create the most stunning composition in my new garden. But despite my best efforts at settling it into its new position, I never did really take to it.
And since then I have not been able to look at burgundy foliage through the same eyes. So when I visited a very burgundy garden in Melbourne recently, designed by Ros McCully, it was interesting to process my thoughts.
There were many aspects to this garden that I loved, both burgundy and non-burgundy.
I loved the subtle blend of Heuchera and Ajuga; the former picking out the burgundy tints of the Ajuga foliage. I also loved the Stachys growing with them; the foliage shapes, sizes and forms holding the composition together whilst the contrasting colours and textures provided a very pleasing effect. A perfect mix of covers for an area that needed very low planting.
I also had distinct Acer envy. Here in Sydney, Japanese maples don’t do well. They may look fabulous for their first few weeks in spring but very quickly the sandy soil and often strong coastal winds combine to burn their leaf margins.
The envy didn’t stop there. These hydrangea quercifolia were in immaculate condition. They will grow in Sydney – indeed they are native to the not dissimilar climate of Florida – although you don’t see them here very often. I suspect it is because they don’t look so good through winter – everyone in Sydney seems to want immaculate gardens for 12 months of the year. What a shame they miss out on so many great plants in so doing.
I also adored this cosy seating area at the back of the garden. A shady bench under a natural canopy of leaves, a stocked pond giving movement and life and complete privacy all around – a perfect little oasis.
And I loved the way this natural herb garden, behind the Stachys, blended into the garden; it was beautiful, connected to its surroundings and functional. It is rare to see edible plants so well integrated.
And you could just imagine the views from inside the house. So much more stimulating than the common single-species hedge which most plant along narrow passageways.
Some lovely photos, but I haven’t really answered the question of my thoughts on burgundy foliage today.
This garden really did confirm that there genuinely is a place for every plant on the planet. It’s just that some work better than others in certain places and with some thought, a wider range can be used in each scenario.
My preference with burgundy is to go subtle. I love this little scene with the fresh, red Acer foliage and the similarly coloured Salvia to its right. Nothing is too dominant. Because most leaves are green, if burgundy foliage is suddenly introduced in too ‘blocky’ a way, it just screams at you. For me, I want to take in the whole garden, to feel absorbed in the entire entity, not feel overly distracted by a single, prominent plant. ‘Contrast without dominance’ is my mantra.
Whilst I adore the brickwork on this plinth, if I am being picky, for me the planting here is a little blocky. A little too obvious; the contrasts quite stark. The burgundy stone and Loropetalum tie together well; there are even tones of the Stachys in the stonework, but the green/yellow Liriope, for me, is one strong contrast too many for such a small area. Take one opposing colour away and the two remaining colours would be blissfully harmonious. I can see burgundy Loropetalum, burgundy-tinted Ajuga and grey Stachys looking absolutely stunning.
I think flowers, with their transient nature, get away with much more contrast quite comfortably. I adore bursts of flowers of all colours, but somehow their green foliage always ties the different flowers together. It is more difficult to achieve this with highly contrasting foliage colours; you have to look very creatively to find connections to link it in with the rest of the garden. My usual preference is hence for its subtle use, rather than a formulaic, blocky use.
For me, repeater plants across a garden are best to recede, rather than act as the main attraction. Your mind subconsciously knows that some plants are repeated and hence the garden feels cohesive, but they don’t draw attention away from all that the garden has to offer. They are the foundations rather than the stars of the show.
Burgundy can certainly be repeated, but my preference is to see it in the context of a variety of burgundy species and forms, such as the Acer, that has blurred margins, and the Ajuga, which straddles green and burgundy, so that they mingle with other plants reducing the blocky, overpowering, repetitious feel.
But you know, there are no right or wrong answers in garden design. Just preferences and trends. And until my Bergenia look as healthy as the ones below and I stop being corrected by Bunnings staff twice my age about what is trendy, perhaps I should not be too vocal on such things! Subtle or (a tiny bit) blocky, there is no question that this is, indeed, a beautiful garden.