Colour theory: sense or insensibility?

If I said I was going to live my life by the beliefs and precepts which were followed 135 years ago you may think I was eccentric. Promenading in my best suit at weekends and no conception of the internet might well be perceived as strange! 

So why do many gardeners still seek to adopt the colour theories of Gertrude Jekyll as their default? Why are so many gardens seeking a tonal harmony – using the colour wheel and grouping warm and cool colours? Perhaps it is part of the notion that gardens are art….

I suspect instead that it is to do with comfort – that is how gardens look because that is how we remember they look. The floral exuberance of the seeded meadow-like planting in the Olympic Park dispelled this though (as has research at Sheffield University) where the mixture of colours, randomly associated, left most spectators gaping in wonder. Indeed some garden designers have been heard to say that they wouldn’t have put thosecolours together and yet they work….

Jekyllian theories of colour in the garden should definitely not be dismissed or belittled. But we need to recognise that they represent a “tasteful” approach which was seen as ground-breaking 135 years ago and as such were a radical departure from what went before. They are therefore of their time – in this case from the end of the nineteenth century to the second half of the twentieth century. As I have an interest in the history of gardening this taste was a reaction to what were deemed to be gaudy combinations of plants – but neither should be dismissed. Taste is a personal construct and should concentrate less on what we are told we should like and more on what we actually like.

Rules are there to be broken and in a garden that is often what brings the greatest pleasure – a self-seeded plant in the right place or an unexpected combination for instance. If you have the urge then go plant what you like where you want!