Garden Planning by Color: Painting with Plants

Plan a beautiful garden by considering plant color, texture, and compatibility—with little more than seeds and a sketchbook.

| May/June 1989

  • house with garden
    Swatches of marigolds (Golden Gate), dianthuses (Telstar Picotee) and verbenas (Novalis) can add color to any home vegetable garden.
  • flower bed
    Intermingling vegetables, or vegetables with flowers and herbs, is not only visually appealing, but good for your garden: you encourage beneficial insects.
  • calendula and cauliflower
    Calendulas mingle well with young cauliflowers.
  • garden plot
    A triangle of lettuce, beets, purple mustard, nicotiania and more.
  • garden plot 2
    Pansies betwixt bunching onions (at left); well-watered celery and leeks.

  • house with garden
  • flower bed
  • calendula and cauliflower
  • garden plot
  • garden plot 2

Aren't those kids' paint-with-water books great? I used to think they were magic. I was so in love with them that I'd deliberately pester my grandmother until she'd pull one out to quiet me. Then I'd sit at the kitchen table with a cup of water and a little brush and "paint" for hours. It was always so exciting to see the little dried dots in the pictures explode into rich primary hues at the touch of my wet brush.

Seeds are like that: little dry dots that explode with color. (Just add water!) And seed can be found to produce almost any hue imaginable, making us free to sow bold paths of color off the tips of our fingers with the sweep of an arm.

The gardener using plants as pigments can control shapes and textures as well: sinuous pea tendril, delicate corn silk, puckered spinach green and smooth radicchio. All you have to do to take advantage of this full palette of color and design is look for attractive ways to combine different plants—vegetables, flowers and herbs—in your garden.

Furthermore, artful garden planning is not only colorful but three-dimensional, aromatic and practical. Practical? Obviously, you'll produce edible, as well as attractive, results (no "starving artists" here). But there's more to it than that. By intermingling vegetables, or vegetables with flowers and herbs, you encourage beneficial insects and confuse the homing-in devices of harmful ones.

If you place plants with similar cultural requirements together, tending them becomes easier too. For instance, the bright fruits of graceful pepper plants look even better when set off by a low border of silver-fronded-gazanias—and both will last all season under semidry conditions. Heavy nitrogen feeders like lettuce and cabbage are well suited to sharing the same spot. And combining two crops that usually require botanical sprays will not only consolidate your work but also limit any drift damage to beneficial insects.

Your living garden arrangements can benefit from other functional considerations, as well. For example, calliopsis appreciates the support offered by the sturdy, open stems and leaves of squash and melons. Summer lettuce prospers in the dappled shade cast by chili peppers or dill. A ground cover of borage or basil can help keep tomato roots moist. And thyme or hyssop planted among cabbages or other brassicas repels the white cabbage butterfly.

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