Book Review: Hue Anxiety

The garden we loved best when we were in England last September was the late Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter. And so when we returned home I was determined to read some of his garden books.

color for adventurous gardeners2


I have been drawn to and perplexed by the subject of color in the garden for some time, and so the first of Lloyd’s books that I tackled was Color for Adventurous Gardeners. I’m very glad I did so, for through this book I was able to self-diagnose a mild case of garden color anxiety.

According to Lloyd, “color anxious gardeners” want to follow established rules that can be relied upon to yield results that are tasteful and will not shock the neighbors.  Reliance on color harmonies would be an example of this. Lloyd is not against color harmonies, but he believes they are a safe choice and should not be overused.

Purple harmony with tulips at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

In my case, I do not limit myself to color harmonies. In fact, I like lots of bright, exciting, and contrasting colors. At the same time, I have this nagging feeling that there are certain rules I should be following in order to achieve a really beautiful garden. What’s more, a confident understanding of these rules eludes me despite reading several books about color in the garden.

Lloyd says don’t worry about the rules: “The limitations imposed by rules are a safe haven, but the adventurous gardener wants to try something different.” And when I read Lloyd’s blunt confession that he didn’t understand the color wheel, I was moved to shout aloud: “Thank you! Thank you, Christopher Lloyd!”

Great Dixter
Adventurous color at Great Dixter

The adventurous gardener wants to experiment, which is essential if you want to come up with something that is personal and original. Moreover, says  Lloyd: “Given the right circumstances, I believe that every color can be used with every other …”, and so the possibilities for successful color combinations are practically endless.

One reason we shouldn’t worry too much about getting the “right” color scheme is that color is not the primary determinant of a garden’s success. Lloyd argues that the garden’s underlying structure, having the right plants properly cared for, and the complementary shapes and textures of those plants should all be considered before getting to color.

Christopher Lloyd, the gardener. Not Christopher Lloyd, the actor.
Christopher Lloyd, the gardener. Not Christopher Lloyd, the actor.

The bulk of Color for Adventurous Gardeners consists of chapters devoted to individual colors: red, orange, blue, etc. Lloyd discusses the qualities of each color and experiences he has had with them at Great Dixter and elsewhere. Each chapter concludes with notes on specific plants. These notes are interesting, though their practical value depends on how similar your garden’s conditions are to those in southern England.

I can’t even try to summarize what Lloyd says about each color, but his preference for color contrasts comes through pretty strongly. For example, of orange he says: “Of all colors orange is the one that cries out most for contrast.” And regarding blue: “More than any other color, blue needs contrast near it, to prevent its looking dull.”

The book is illustrated so beautifully with garden photographs that you may be tempted to skip the text altogether and simply gaze at all the lovely beds and borders.

Color for Adventurous Gardeners is an effective treatment for those of of us suffering from garden color anxiety. And even if you don’t, it provides a handy booster shot.





43 Comments on “Book Review: Hue Anxiety”

  1. My attempts at colour coordination have mostly failed… but I don’t mind! Seeing a stray orange tulip in my pink and white planting scheme just makes me smile. 😉 Occasionally a combination reveals itself by pure chance, which I then try and cultivate, but the most important thing is colour itself, and nature cannot clash, can it? Have a great weekend Jason, and hope you have a bit more colour this week as your garden warms up.

  2. A Great book review. Thank you. I have read quite a few of Christo’s books but not this one. I shall buy it now. This subject of colour is such an interesting one. I know he liked to break the rules and he loved bold colour schemes but I have at times wondered if Lloyd was colour blind because I found some of his colour combinations so jarring.
    I don’t think it is a matter of worrying what the neighbours or the colour police think, it is a matter of what you find aesthetically pleasing. It also depends on the time of year and the quality of the light. In late summer the light here calls for more vibrant colour schemes the ones that look lovely in spring and early summer.
    I think we should have more discussion about this subject of colour, it is an interesting one. I bet we would never all agree about what makes a good colour combination and why. We can’t even agree on how to spell the word ‘colour’!

    • You English keep insisting on sticking a completely pointless “u” in there. I agree that color is very subjective, and that one formula may not work under different conditions even for the same person. The idea that Christoper Lloyd was actually color blind is very amusing.

  3. I love Christopher Lloyd and hope to visit great Dixter for the first time this summer. I think it comes down to worrying about what others think. Be yourself, if you like it that’s all that matters. There was a great programme on here other day British Gardens through time and the first one featured Gt Dixter, it as on the BBC if you can access it I would recommend it as Fergus Garrett was talking about planting etc

  4. I found Christopher Lloyd about the same time I was going through a tropical garden stage. It really made me feel a little less crazy for planting all the bananas and elephant ears in a zone 6 garden, and liking the mix of red and purple!
    The exotic garden is a great book too. You’ll need dahlias after reading and seeing the pictures in that one .

  5. Glad to know the great Christopher Lloyd would approve of my “color scheme.” I always start out with a color design, but after a year or two my plant addiction means I’m sticking in plants in every bare inch of soil, no matter whether they complement or clash with everything else nearby.

  6. Color is so personal I find. Many request certain colors not be included in a garden and I have had some that wanted no color – only white flowers with many shades and texture of green foliage. Seasons and seasonal light affect color so a garden can change interest through the seasons. Spring brings so many pinks and yellows, summer hot color like reds can predominate and fall is heavy in blues. Color weighs far less on design than does garden structure and most people forget about this aspect of design. Also, giving the eye a rest in a colorful garden is important. That is a forgotten principle as well. So much more than color is in those English gardens.

  7. I love Black-eyed Susan, but to me, they are the quintessential Midwest prairie flower that seems out of place in a grand garden. You showed pictures of it at Sissinghurst, as well, and my feelings were the same about that. They were not in that garden when Vita Sackville-West lived there.

  8. Enjoyed Fergus Garrett’s (head gardener at Great Dixter) talk at the Chicago Botanic Garden in March this year. He spoke on color as well. Didn’t mention this book so thank you, I will buy it as well. Are we in the same Hardy Bulbs class? Love your posts.

  9. When I keep to native plantings I find that color seems to take care of itself. It seems like blues and whites tend to bloom together. Then there is a period of pinks. Another of yellows. But when I introduce exotics then it gets trickier. I am pretty timid when it comes to color for the most part but I always have one container where I let myself go crazy with intense saturated color.
    I really like browneyed susan but that particular shade of yellow is a tough one to work with.

  10. Great post! I love Christopher Lloyd..discovered him when i lived in UK for a while. I totally agree with him. I do understand the color wheel and just blogged this week about red-green primary secondary combination. But when I design a garden I put things together that please me, all theory aside. I need to go re-read this book…i don’t do orange very well!
    Here is my post in case your are interested : )

  11. Great post, I think the use of colour should be determined by the lighting conditions. Some colours may look washed out in countries with strong sunlight such as Australia, while paler and pastel hues work well in countries such as England. Then of course this is also determined by individual garden situations and personal taste.

  12. I like shocking my neighbors and love orange, red, and purple all thrown together in a white pot. I’m less worried about what colors I “should” be putting together and more interested in just creating combo’s that make me happy. Gardeners give themselves so many damn rules they take all the fun out of it sometimes. We take something intensely creative and personal and turn it into a breeding ground for neurosis and competition. I think I would have liked Lloyd very much.

  13. I would love to see Great Dixter. Christopher LLoyd expresses my own philosophy. “The garden’s underlying structure, having the right plants properly cared for, and the complementary shapes and textures of those plants should all be considered before getting to color,” says it all!

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