Garden Life: Take risk, expand your garden’s color palette




Lavatera "aurea" features singular, golden-green photosynthetic foliage that catches light in a mysterious and fascinating way.

Don’t get stuck in the notion that you have to plant the same flower colors every year because it has worked for you in the past. Being safe all the time in color and plant selection limits your opportunities. Be a pioneer and venture out on your own. Taking chances has opened the door to some of the best, most surprising color combinations in my own garden. I never knew how cheerful I found the combination of pink and yellow until my “Moonbeam” coreopsis bloomed at the foot of the daylily “Minnie Pearl.”

One of the best things about summer is the abundance of planters and hanging baskets in Northwest gardens. There are always new plant introductions, with sun-loving, brightly colored blossoms heading the list. This year, the red-orange-yellow dahlia “Tequila Sunrise” jumps out of the sunny border. Annuals add color to the garden and interest to decks and porches even as perennial garden flowers begin to fade for the season. Annual plantings in pots, planters and baskets give the smallest garden a sense of generosity as they overflow their containers.

Not every garden has full sun for an extended period each day and not every seasonal planter has to be planted with brightly colored, sun-loving plants. Color can be subtle and sophisticated as well. One of my favorite color spots in the garden is situated along a woodland trail in the midst of a shade border. Here, a large earthen pot is planted with a “Blue Star” juniper, two demure Japanese painted ferns (athyrium nipponicum “Pictum”), a small variegated sedge and the trailing lamium “Beacon Silver.”

Gardening splurge

Every once in a while I have to embark on a gardening splurge. When I say, “splurge,” I don’t mean that I simply spend more money than I was expecting to spend or that I bought three of one plant instead of one. I’m talking about the classic spree when I plan to indulge myself in some luxury or pleasure that’s been biding its time in the back of my mind somewhere, just waiting for the right moment to come along. Heading out to the nursery one day with the intention of bringing home the esteemed pagoda dogwood cornus alternifolia is one good example of a plant splurge.

The most coveted pagoda dogwoods are the variegated forms. There are two highly prized varieties, cornus alternifolia “Argentea” and C. a. “Golden Shadows.” The pagoda dogwood is one of those plants that stands out in a crowd, appearing to have brighter foliage, a more intricate silhouette and a more distinct charm than your average garden shrub or tree. Young stems are deep purplish-brown. White flowers are borne in wide, flat clusters above the foliage during May and June.

The rounded, purple-black fruits ripen in July and even the fruit stalks draw your eye with a rich, pinkish-red tint, more ornamental than the fruit. The word variegata, included after the Latin name of a plant, indicates that the foliage has markings of some color other than the general leaf color. “Argentia” carries delicate, creamy-white markings on a green background. “Golden Shadows” has green and gold variegated leaves, emerald-green to lime-green on the inside, gold on the outside

In the garden world, everything is subjective, so what seems extravagant in the garden for you might not be extravagant in the garden for me. For some gardeners, extravagance means exorbitantly high-priced and for others it is merely a matter of crossing the bounds of good taste. Some find the shocking pink, crepe-paper blossoms of the “Kwanzan” flowering cherry tree too brassy to grow in their own gardens, while others consider it the first true sign of spring in the Northwest. Selling plants is an industry in the Pacific Northwest and so the ones we want the most will probably cost us more than the others. Shop around for the best price. Even if you get a bargain, you can still consider the final purchase a splurge.

A little mystery

One garden plant that I would recommend to anyone simply for its foliage is the striking, golden-leaved, “Aurea” tree mallow or lavatera olbia “Aurea.” Lavatera or mallow plants are inexpensive and grow well for everyone, so they are considered too common by some. Most retailers mark this variety up in price simply because we fall for its singular golden-green photosynthetic foliage. The way it catches light is mysterious and fascinating. Like the actor Brad Pitt, we may not know exactly what makes it so special but everybody who sees it wants to try and figure it out.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at