Tom Hewitt is a writer and gardening consultant.

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Seeing Red
by Tom Hewitt    

Designer Bill Blass was right when he called red “the ultimate cure for sadness.” It certainly grabs our attention and excites in a way no other color can. But it’s also one of hardest colors to use in a garden. It’s easy to go overboard or miss the mark entirely by picking the wrong shade.  

Pure red is actually quite rare in nature. Most of my favorite red flowers – such as tropical sage (Salvia coccinea), red Lantana, geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), and Cosmos ‘Cosmic Red’ – contain orange undertones.  

I’m not nearly as timid about using red as I used to be. I used to consider red too “garish” for my English garden, but not anymore. When I visited Monet’s garden in Giverny, I was surprised to find so many red flowers growing there. I expected oranges, purples, and pinks, but not strong reds. When I asked a caretaker about this, he told me that the red flowers were some of Monet’s favorites.  

Still, red is the most dominant of colors, so I use it sparingly. It can easily overpower the eye and steal the show and I’ve found that the smaller the garden, the less red it can handle, since it can cause a garden to look even smaller.  

This principal doesn’t seem to apply to larger gardens, however. I noticed this on a visit to a public botanical garden, where scarlet sage (Salvia splendens) was paired with blue mealycup sage (S. farinacea) and white Angelonia. With an open view of wetlands in the distance, it was a sight I’ll never forget.  

Strong reds can be toned down with green, which is directly opposite of red on the color wheel. Though not a color you’d normally associate with restfulness, I sometimes nestle pots of tropical sage among the ferns in my backyard. To quote famed garden designer Penelope Hobhouse, “Red makes its strongest impact when it comes as a surprise.”  

I wouldn’t advise using plants with large red flowers in an intimate, restful setting. There’s a difference between shock and surprise. If your eye goes directly to a pot of vermilion geraniums, for example, you may have gone too far … unless, of course, that was your intention.  

I love using hanging baskets planted with red flowers, but I add white Alyssum, Lobelia, or some other filler to tone them down. Some of my red-flowering favorites for baskets include Verbena, million bells (Calibrachoa hybrids), purslane (Portulaca oleracea), and trailing Madagascar periwinkles (Catharanthus roseus cvs.).    

Red flowers play well against gray foliage, such as that of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), and dusty miller (Senecio cineraria). I also like the rich look of red and purple together, like red geraniums paired with purple Lobelia. Other favorites of mine for containers include ‘Rocket Red’ snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus ‘Rocket Red’), red Begonia, ‘Cherry Rose’ nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus ‘Cherry Rose’), Zinnia (especially ‘Profusion Cherry’, ‘Double Strawberry’, and ‘Red Spider’), red Pentas, and red tropical hollyhocks (Alcea hybrids). I sometimes use red Gaillardia in my butterfly garden, though they never last long.  

For gardens in light shade, consider growing Brazilian red cloak (Megaskepasma erythrochlamys), red firespike (Odontonema strictum), ti plants (Cordyline spp.), red gingers, azaleas (Rhododendron ‘Red Ruffles’ and ‘Red Formosa’ perform well for me), or sleepy hibiscus (Malvaviscus penduliflorus).  

In full sun to partial shade, grow bromeliads (especially Neoregelia ‘Fireball’), sun coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides cvs.), copperleaf (Acalypha wilkesiana), Hibiscus, ‘Louis Philippe’ roses (Rosa ‘Louis Philippe’), red Crossandra, and red ruellia (Ruellia elegans). Canna is also available in a wide range of reds, and some even have reddish foliage.  

On the patio, grow red desert rose (Adenium obesum) in a pot, and grow red Mandevilla on trellises. If you have the room, don’t overlook red Bougainvillea.  

Ground cover choices include bloodleaf (Iresine herbstii), Joseph’s coat (Alternanthera ficoidea ‘Red Threads’), dwarf chenille plant (Acalypha pendula) and baby sunrose (Aptenia cordifolia).

If you want to draw attention to a particular area of your garden, use red as a focal point. Red patio furniture, pieces of art, or even a red bench can be stunning. Painting a door or garden gate red is another clever idea, especially if you have an abundance of greenery to play against. 


Photography by Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 03/05/19   RSS | Print


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