My garden is decidedly orange at the moment. Orange Acer, orange Parthenocissus, orange Anigozanthos, orange Clivia, orange Banksia, orange, well, oranges, even!
Orange is a colour that frequently polarises; it’s probably the one that most clients say ‘anything but’ about. And yet it is an exuberant, youthful, adventurous, energetic, healthy, fun, exciting, warm, confident, cheerful, stimulating colour. Which all sounds pretty good. The negative connotations, however, are lacking seriousness, being flamboyant and signifying low class or cheapness.
But hang on a minute. Lacking seriousness and being flamboyant sound like two pretty positive garden characteristics to me. So we’re left with the question of cheapness. Easyjet does pop into my mind.
I think this is the crux of the matter. There are oranges and oranges. I’m having a ‘cheapness’ issue with my Clivia at the moment. Or at least a brashness one. I love the foliage but that orange of the standard Clivia miniata repels me more and more each year. It’s insipid, almost fluorescent; this is not a sophisticated colour to my eye.
But should we tarnish all oranges with this label? Think of the more earthy shades. Autumn leaves, the flames of a fire, a beautiful sunset, Banksia cones, the patina of copper or the fieriness of saffron. Such gorgeous, natural, healthy colours, many caused by important protectant pigments, carotenoids.
There is a generic design ‘rule’ that says there are no bad colours, only bad colour combinations, along a similar line to my view that there are no bad plants, only bad places to plant them. So I was thinking about the colour combinations where I think orange looks particularly stunning.
1. Green, purple, orange
Green, purple and orange are the three secondary colours: the products of mixing two primary colours. Seen together, green, purple and orange balance and stabilise each other; they have less tension than complementary colours (opposite on the wheel colour) and yet are still visually exciting. This ‘triangle’ of colours (as positioned on the colour wheel) works particularly well when one of the three is dominant, in our case usually the grounding green of foliage. It was surprisingly hard then, to find any photos of this combination, amongst my thousands of library pictures. I have recently planted a purple Salvia next to an orange Leonotis and lush green Crinum in my garden…but I’m still waiting for the Leonotis to flower.
Mixing a whole range of bright, pure, unmuted colours has a wonderfully uplifting effect. Coming from the same, outer ring of the colour wheel, unadulterated by white or black, the colours have a connection that ties them all together. With all pure hues, it’s surprising how fabulous seemingly clashing colours look together. Magenta and orange? No problem. You can even add a pure white to the brights – it makes the colour pop even further – but it must be a pure, pure white or the colour connections break down.
It’s also common to see ‘hot’ garden beds; mixtures of yellows, oranges and reds. These are known as analogous colour combinations – those next to each other on the colour wheel. Here it is often best to use ‘tints’ of each shade: the pure colour muted with a splash of white or even ‘tones’, with grey added, or the look can be a little harsh. It is surprisingly hard to combine colours once you get into tints and tones – easy to see which ones look bad when they are all in place, but far harder to make that call when buying an extra plant at the nursery!
Which brings me to the final point. Harmony. We are always searching for that perfect point between contrast and harmony. Because orange is an attention grabber (it’s even said to increase oxygen supply to the brain), it does need to be used with care. For me, Matthew Keightley’s Chelsea 2015 garden had orange that was too dominant amongst its neighbours. It made it hard to see the whole as the orange drew your eyes away every time. This can be resolved, as Dan Pearson did, by having less intense orange blocks, or it can be settled by integrating other strong aspects that compete equally with each other.
To me, one of the most harmonious uses of orange is in Australian native gardens. Orange colours tend to be muted and less intensely clumped, mixed up amongst many other colours. Orange-looking flowers are often actually a mix of yellow and red, forming quite a complex orange glow, and bark often flakes to reveal oranges amongst browns and greys and beiges. Repeated in different forms, native oranges bring real warmth to the typically grey-green foliage of many species, without being overly dominant or ‘blocky’.
And so we are left with a few loose ends. Firstly, is there a place for the fluorescent Clivia miniata orange? I guess there is, although I’m struggling to come up with one. I can’t think of a situation, putting cost aside, where I wouldn’t prefer the shades of the Clivia hybrids. Maybe the right place for it is somewhere in the 1970s or perhaps the 2030s? Maybe it’s just out of fashion right now, but has a place in the future.
Secondly, are the brightest oranges just for the tropics and subtropics? It is often said that pastels are better for temperate gardens and brighter shades for hotter climates. Well, Chelsea and Sissinghurst can’t both be wrong; both with abundant orange plantings. But it isn’t necessarily the best colour for a relaxing area, designed for high dwell time. Chelsea and Sissinghurst both delight the viewer as they pass by, but we do need to think about the mood we are trying to create in a particular area. This applies equally to temperate and tropical gardens.
Overall, in the right place, I like to think of orange as the energy of red with the happiness of yellow. What are your thoughts?