Simplicity and colour

Each year, growers of bedding plants put on a private show for the industry. These are the flowers you find at the garden centre – usually annuals such as petunias, but perennials are shown here, too.

At the heart of gardening and yard design is simplicity and colour

Each year, growers of bedding plants put on a private show for the industry. These are the flowers you find at the garden centre – usually annuals such as petunias, but perennials are shown here, too. The growers force their line of plants under controlled conditions to produce large, mature specimens out of season. Then they put them together in a fabulous display to entice growers to buy their varieties for the coming year.

These grow-outs known as pack trials are rarely seen by those outside the industry.

This year I attended those of Proven Winners and Euro-American Propagators, one of the swankiest new plant producers in America.

We always expect PW plants to be flawless, but rarely are they displayed in such a spectacular setting.

What struck me is how they used a few simple techniques to make their plants outstanding. And I realized that these ideas could easily be re-created in any back yard at minimal cost by people with little garden or design experience.

At the heart of it all is simplicity and colour, which combine to make the plants really pop within their environment. This became far more apparent to me afterward, when I went through the photography.

I realized someone had spent a great deal of time and effort getting each plant’s setting just right so that the variety being promoted was the most important element in the composition.

Each plant was positioned with pinpoint accuracy against a background that was carefully chosen and positioned to show its greatest attributes.

Sometimes the background was a visual opposite of the plant’s overall colour. This would create such high contrast that every nuance of the variety became fully visible. The play of dark against light and light against dark was astoundingly simple, yet effective.

Certain combinations highlighted tiny leaf-edge serrations that would otherwise go unnoticed.

The right background illustrated fine-textured grasses so they could be instantly compared for density. With a visually opposite background, micro-mini flowers seemed to jump out of their space to demand attention. I realized there is no better or simpler way of helping me take notice of a plant.

The PW designers literally forced my eye to pick up the fine details at a glance, whether I was interested in that individual or not.

For example, they set a large dark purple, almost black, European geranium by itself against a butter-yellow wall. Each scalloped leaf seemed to vibrate at its edges where dark met the light.

Nothing proved as bold as a basket of solid coral orange Diasica flowers used against a bright blue background. These colours, blue and orange, produced the very same high-contrast visibility.

When you see this done in such scale and intensity, you can’t help but get very excited.

I recalled the old expression, “Keep it simple, stupid,” because it describes our goal with this concept and contemporary design. It’s a simple recipe: just plants and colour.

The old clutter of the Laura Ashley designs of the 1980s and the emergence of global ethnic in the 1990s both called for busy planting schemes that complemented the decor. Today’s modernist decorating styles are spare and sleek, utilizing bold colour fields with sculptural forms.

Naturally, the exterior spaces should complement this to extend the look and feel outdoors.

The good news is that such simple compositions are far more affordable than overflowing colour bowls and fancy containers.

In fact, plants so obscure many of these containers that you get the sense that we’ve lost the need for artistic pots altogether. Thankfully, this saves on the most expensive element, the container, allowing you to recycle plastic nursery pots to create these beautiful effects.

Because what everyone forgets when it comes to garden design is that it’s really all about the plants – and that everything else is just stuff.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at

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