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Colour in the garden

By Marilyn Medina Ribeiro

Colour, whether subtle or shouting, is fundamental to successful design and the mood of a garden. When you look at the colours in your garden, which do you love? Which are peaceful, lively, or rich? Are there some that you don’t really like at all, but you haven’t the courage to remove the plant in question?

Well, I say, be brave! Life is too short to live with something you hate. Rip it up and take the opportunity to plant something that you truly adore. It is very easy to make a “colourful” garden in our climate, full of the day-glo brights of the sub-tropics. But there are almost infinite combinations to be made, a world away from this ubiquitous sweetie-shop mixture.

The first thing to remember is that colour doesn’t come from flowers alone. Foliage and bark, berries and fruit – all contribute to the scheme, and while flowers are often transient, these other forms are longer lasting.

Have you ever noticed the range of berry colours seen on Pistacia lentiscus, the lentisc? From whitish cream through flesh-pink and rose, to bright reds and crimsons and finally black, it is a symphony lasting all winter long.

Autumn colour is rare here, but the soft yellow of quince leaves before they fall is noteworthy, while the pomegranate deserves a place in every garden for its foliage value.

New growth ranges from bronze and salmon pink through to burnished reds before turning fresh green, then butter-yellow in autumn. And that’s all without mentioning its fire-orange flowers or beautiful fruits…

Within greens alone, we have a spectrum: silver, creamy variegations, lime, sage, olive, grass-green, the deep greens of pine or cypress. These are shades you can see in practically any mediterranean landscape and work best in a low- or no-water regime: the darks become richer, the silvers whiter.

Add to this the wine-red or blush pink of new foliage, gold and pearl shades from grasses, the blues and yellows possible with conifers and the deep purples of barberries and plums, and leaf colour provides you with practically a full palette.

Berries on Pistacia lentiscus
Berries on Pistacia lentiscus

With this in mind, there is a strong case for thinking of flowers as accents to the leaves, not more. They can certainly be dazzling accents, though, lighting up a shady spot or glowing in bright sunshine.

A haze of white flowers can illuminate a scheme of deep greens and wine-reds, while the acid-yellow of fennel and euphorbia is pure magic alongside silver foliage and indigo flowers.

Finally, hard landscaping and accessories – a wall, a wooden structure, terracotta or glazed pots – can be coloured to harmonise with or shock against the colours from the plants.

There are a lot of rules about taste when it comes to colour. Don’t put too many colours together; don’t have yellow next to pink. But this latter always puts me in mind of the inimitable Christopher Lloyd who, while being interviewed by Stephen Lacey at his garden, Great Dixter, was talking about this particular unbreakable rule and wandering along the famous mixed border.

A moment later he stopped and, with mock despair, pointed out a pink phlox flowering its head off … against a backdrop of brilliant yellow.

A few of my favourite combinations are silver with purple; the aforementioned lime with indigo and turquoise; the golds of seedheads and grasses combined with the silver-blues of midsummer. My key rule for colours, though, is simple: choose those that make your heart sing.

Jobs for the autumn

The wonderful early rains mean more work for us –planning, constructing and propagating for our gardens, and attacking the weeds which are springing forth with renewed vigour.

It’s a great time to get going with winter vegetables: garlic, onions, beetroot, carrots, turnips, cabbage, peas, asparagus, spinach, beans, lentils, strawberries, radishes and lettuce can all be started now.

Compost will need turning and you will have plenty of material to add to it with the weeding. Above all, we are coming into the best season for planting – whether seeds, bulbs or plants, go forth and collect those subjects you have been hankering after.

|| Plant of the Week Stapelia

A genus of around 40 species of succulent plants, mainly from North Africa, whose common name – Carrion Flower – hints at the foul smell of their unusual blooms, which are pollinated by flies. Some are stinkier than others, however, and many are worthy of a place in the succulent or pot garden for the odd beauty of the flowers and the contrast provided by the interesting texture of their finger-like stems.

|| Guess what this is

Name the plant shown in this picture and your details will go into the draw to win a garden consultation and plant suggestion list!

What’s looking good right now

Autumn-flowering geophytes

“Geophyte” is a useful catch-all term for any plant with enlarged underground storage organs – rhizomes, tubers, bulbs and corms. This is a great time of year to spot them in the wild, with recent rain encouraging many beautiful examples to re-emerge after their summer sleep. Leucojum autumnalis, Scilla autumnalis, crocus, and the orchid Spiranthes spiralis are flowering now. Look carefully as you walk: they are all tiny, but beautiful.


Marilyn Medina Ribeiro has degrees in Graphic Design and Landscape Management and has worked in nurseries, parks and private gardens. In 2008, she moved to the Algarve, managing hotel gardens and later founding her own company to promote sustainable land management.