Conquering Flower Fears: New Book Helps Gardeners Add Color

“Of course, you should to this,” I said. I was on the phone with my college roommate, who’d called to ask whether she was crazy to consider writing a book about adding color to your garden. A publisher had expressed interest.

A garden designer who lives just outside Atlanta, Roxann Ward told me she felt distressed when she saw other landscapers’ projects that lacked color. “It’s so easy! Why wouldn’t you add color?” This question haunted her, and she wanted to write a book that would give both gardening pros and home gardeners a shot of color courage.

Book Cover courtesy UNC Press.

Almost two years after that phone call, a copy of “Color-Rich Gardening for the South: A Guide for All Seasons” (The University of North Carolina Press, March 8, $24) appeared in my mailbox. When I started reading “Color-Rich Gardening,” I felt as if Roxann and I were chatting over tea, and she was telling me in her quiet unassuming way how to make a garden spring alive.

“I’m just a lady who likes to dig in the dirt,” she said, over the phone last week, as if that’s what became of her after all these years. I think back to when we were both journalism majors at the University of Kansas. She was tall, reserved, blonde, and effortlessly elegant. I was not. But we still found a lot of common ground.

We both worked for the school newspaper. I landed on the copy desk cluelessly editing sports news; I would ask the sportswriters after they turned in their stories what sport they were writing about. Roxann sold advertising. She called on one client who sold used mattresses. You can only go up from there.

Fortunately, she stumbled into her second career and calling 20 years ago when her family moved to England for two years. There she fell in love with the gardens. When she got back to the states, she went back to school to study horticulture.

After working for a large company doing commercial and residential projects, she started her own company, which specializes in residential gardens. “What I really enjoy is coaching people to do this themselves.”

And her book does just that. In her friendly, commonsense way, Roxann walks readers through the basics, like how to know what kind of soil you have, how to easily find out what your soil might need, how to test your planter bed’s drainage, how to calculate how many plants to buy, how to water, and when to prune. However, at the heart of the book lie 10 diagrams for garden designs, a sort of paint by numbers that anyone can follow.

Although her book focuses on the South, (U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 6b through 8b, which covers 17 states from Delaware to North Florida to Southern Oklahoma), the design templates work anywhere. “You just follow the plan and swap out the plants for those that grow in your zone,” she said.

Here’s a sampling of ways her book gently steers readers away from common garden design mistakes toward colorful success:

  • Design first. “Before you find yourself in the aisle of a garden center weak in the knees bewitched by a stunning peony in full bloom,” Roxann writes, have a plan. She often sees couples at these centers, saying, “Oh that’s nice. Let’s take one of those, and let’s take three of those,” and they have no idea how it’s going to turn out. They end up with a shopping cart full of pretty plants and no plan. “You and I have both done it. This is what I call gardening backwards.” And it’s a good way to waste money.
  • Unify, don’t divide. Another common mistake Roxann sees home gardeners make is they have a lot of small flower beds, when one large one would be more impactful. Create a larger flower bed in the place where you will most enjoy it.
  • Think layers. The hallmark of an English garden is its layers, she says. The woodsy backdrop of tall shrubs anchors the bed. A middle layer of leggy perennials or bulbs adds depth and appeal, then a showy, shorter layer of bright annuals grounds the bed with pizzazz.
  • Stick to a color palette. Whether you design a flower bed of all one color, of complimentary colors (purple and orange), or of analogous colors (two colors next to each other on the color wheel, like orange and yellow), gardens, like interiors, benefit from having a controlled palette.
  • Embrace container gardens. If your outdoor area is small, or you’re just renting temporarily, you can still have a beautiful garden with just outdoor container planters, Roxann says. Fill them to bursting. “You can shuffle them around, when the planters in front go out of bloom, and take them with you when you move.”
  • Feel free to rearrange. A common misconception people have is that once they put a plant in the ground, it is stuck there. In fact, just like you can rearrange your furniture, you can rearrange your plants. “If you want to move your hydrangeas and put perennials in their place, go ahead. The plants don’t care. Great designers make changes all the time.” Also, don’t feel bad pulling out live plants that look ugly and putting them in the compost pile. “It’s really okay,” she promises.

Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go and Downsizing the Blended Home – When Two Households Become One, and coming in June What to Do With Everything You Own to Leave the Legacy You Want. You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.

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