Sarah's weekly blog: Vintage colour combinations

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Fifteen years ago I wrote The Bold and Brilliant garden which concentrated on intense, strong and voluptuous garden colours, but it’s not only this powerful palette that I love anymore. I am now passionate about a much broader range of colour, including some soft tones, some pale colours, the calm whites and pastels, the shell pinks, pale primrose and washy sky blue; and even more, a range of faded vintage silk colours — faded coral and a soft lilac, which is almost grey, apricots, peach, where the pale colours are mixed with a bit of pewter, slate or crimson.

There’s some smoke in these to make them distinct. On their own, these romantic nude colours are too easily soppy, but with some darks there to add sobriety, you can banish the undertones of candy floss and baby-pink. They’re more difficult to use without creating a cliché, but if you get it right you can turn something that’s sickly sweet into something marvelous — and that’s in the mix.  

I’ve loved these colours increasingly and have recently been encouraged by following several American florists and flower growers (Look at Floretflower, Saipua and Nicamille on instagram) who champion this range of colours in all they do.  

This week, in this faded vintage theme, I’ve been drawn to a combination of early tulips, which have just come into flower. I love the classic ‘Apricot Beauty’, which is a beauty because of its mix of colours. The base is a sort of soft apricot, and there’s some feathering and splotches of deep pink and gold stripes over some petals too, with a glossy sheen radiating out from the flower centre. The inner petal surface is more apricot, with more yellow in it, than the outer.

Mix it with Tulip ‘Salmon Impression’, which matches the outside of ‘Apricot Beauty’. This is a whopper, top-performer. I saw a hundred foot bed of the ‘Impression Series’ at the entrance to the Keukenhof bulb park in Holland in spring 2014. There was ‘Apricot’, ‘Pink’, ‘Salmon’ and ‘Design Impression’ – all giant Darwin Hybrid tulips, which flower valuably early and like most Darwin Hybrids come back brilliantly year after year. I was wary initially of their huge scale, with flowers at least a hand’s breadth across on top of vast stems, with flowers at mid thigh height, but the gargantuan is now the thing and I love them. Despite their size, the Impressions stand up to the weather, they’re good sturdy stalwarts.

Whether it’s with dahlias (the vast Café-au-lait and only slightly smaller ‘Labyrinth’ are top sellers this spring) or tulips, crazy scale is in. With garden and even more cut flowers, big bosomy, curvy, generous flowers, with ruffle upon ruffle are what we should be including in many of our schemes  — we need to be visually braver. It’s easy to stick with the new perennial wishy-washy, natural look where everything merges, one into the next, or the ghastly-good-taste thing of endless blues, silvers, ivory and white, but to stand out, my rule is — go for beauty with more oomph. 

 I’ve added a third tulip to this collection, ‘Light and Dreamy’, a new Darwin Hybrid variety, a winner because it has two incarnations. It stands tall (about 40 cms) and is a crisp, perky, droplet shape when in bud — smoky purple with a very soft pink edge. Its stems are beautiful too, ebony-purple. Once open, it develops into bright bubble-gum pink inside, but the outer petal surface is dusted with smoky purple, more lightly and delicately on the inner three petals than the outer.  That’s what makes it. On its own, the pink would be obvious, but with the added dark, there is a sobriety and it’s all the better for it, turning something potentially sickly sweet into a flower that’s marvelous. In this group of three tulips, it gives the zap of colour contrast which brings the group to life.

In the garden, plant it with Rosemary ‘Foxtail’ which is a very upright form. The usual darkness of rosemary is broken by lots of silver from the leaf’s under-side which makes it elegant and cheerful at the same time. It’s my current favourite rosemary.

Add in some hellebores where you have shade, perhaps some of the truly dark Oriental Hybrids or the showy, double, speckled ones, which have a touch of peach in them as the flowers develop. The tulip combination looks beautiful planted through.

For extra dusky darkness, add Snakeshead fritillaries, but don’t pick many. Even with their stem ends seared, they don’t last more than a couple of days if you pick them. They’re better left in the garden. And scatter a few of the pink blush exterior, white Anemone coronaria ‘Rosa Chiaro Mistral’ as well as the peach centred, Narcissus ‘Sweet Eyes’. The trumpet of this daff highlights the peachy colours of the tulips. 

Now I’ve worked out this combination, that’s what’s going to fill our new rose garden next spring. I can’t wait. 

 Thanks for reading!

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