Subtle hues + Is white a color?

“But white isn’t a color.”


A few weeks back I did a garden consultation for a rather interesting home. It was atop the bluffs on the Coastside, with a generous front garden and unassuming back yard. I was brought in to add continuity, movement and interest, while keeping the garden as low maintenance as possible. The bones of the existing plants, trees and even layout of the garden was acceptable, even pleasant. But they needed a bit more cultivation to get the plants healthy, along with some strategic planting to pull the look together.

Mostly, it was simple. I suggested sweeps of Stipa ichu (for movement, ease and low water use), a handful of large succulents (either Agave ‘Nova’ or a variegated Aloe) and a smattering of Dudleya, Echeveria ‘Lola’ and a few perennials that have interesting foliage and white flowers.

The client was kind, liked the proposed planting and said she wanted to proceed. But I could tell she was looking for something else in the plan. I asked if there was something she wanted to add, and her response was one I have heard time and time again, “I want color”.

Wanting color in the garden is not a terrible request (well, sometimes it most certainly is). I want color in the garden! I just know that usually with color, there is more maintenance. What will you do with those Cosmos sulfureus when they are done blooming? Someone will need to deadhead them – and right away before they reseed. Or take something as easy as Achillea millefolium – this would have actually done rather well so close to the ocean, but I know they do not want to take the time to cut it back when it turns to brown sticks instead of bright pink flowers.

I explained that are are many plants that have color that do not require much (or any) deadheading after bloom, but most of them did not suit her garden’s harsh and salty climate. I waxed poetic about the lovely hues of blue and green from Agave ‘Nova’, and the interesting white dust that rests on the Dudleya plant – and how these colors actually stand out more then colors like yellow, orange or pink in our foggy Coastal weather. I showed how using the sandy and green shades of the grasses actually contrast perfectly with the color of the house, making everything brighter and defined.

It fell, flat.

Being firm in the belief of this-is-your-garden-and-I-will-set-aside-my-designer’s-ego-but-I-won’t-be-happy-about-it-and-I-may-write-a-rant-about-the-whole-thing-on-my-blog, I noticed my explanations were not thrilling her, so I offered up a host of colorful perennials we could add in (luckily in pots only, to punctuate) the front and back garden. I added the caveat of the extra thoughtfulness and care they will require to look good. At the end of the job, I wrote up a care sheet for said “color’.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but think – was there a better way I could have explained the color of white. Maybe in terms of value? I find white valid, interesting and under used in the home and garden.

So then why does bright color always win?


Bring it on, fellow garden designers.

How do you feel about designing color in the garden, when you know it’s not right for a job? Have you been in this situation before? Let’s chat about it below.