‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 12: Color and Context


Paint remains just a blob on an artist’s palette, until it is brushed into context on a canvas.  In the same way, a plant is just another plant, until the gardener places it in the garden, in context with other plants and the garden as a whole.

The most beautiful plant, if left in its plastic nursery pot and set down in a random spot, still looks rather pathetic.  We might spend $30.00 on a lovely shrub, but then set it aside somewhere without ever planting it.  This beautiful shrub soon becomes an eyesore, a distraction.

But the same shrub, if carefully sited, planted, mulched, and woven into the context of our garden; might soon become an attractive focal point that we admire daily as the seasons shift.


Mountain Laurel


Even those of us gardeners who admit that we are more ‘plant collectors’ than ‘garden designers;’ need to weave our favorite plants into a harmonious and pleasing whole.  Placing plants in context with one another, and with our garden’s structure, allows each to sparkle.  It adds to our enjoyment and appreciation.



It challenges us to exercise a bit of artistry to balance a plant’s cultural needs for light and water and space with its eventual proportions, its colors through the seasons, and how it may interact with the other plants already in our garden.



Just as an artist selects a range of colors for her painting, so a gardener might select certain color families to predominate in the garden at any given season.  Repeating colors, like repeating and massed forms, establishes our garden’s mood and lend cohesion.



That is why experienced gardeners rarely buy just one of a given plant, unless they have plans to propagate it themselves into many clones.   Repeating a plant within a bed, and from one area to another,  helps establish a theme.  Our minds begin to make more sense of the whole when we can recognize patterns and discern repetition.



And when we group plants together, we want their foliage and flower colors to harmonize.  Where there is contrast, we still want to avoid colors which simply clash.  Placing a plant carefully allows its color to ‘pop.’


It helps to remember basic geometry when placing plants. Can you spot the three purple Basil plugs planted in a triangle?


While flowers may often prove the most colorful part of a plant, its foliage may be more important in how we use it in our garden’s structure.  Those plants we grow mainly for their beautiful leaves and overall form provide the ‘bones’ of our garden’s design.   Including a variety of leaf shapes and textures makes our garden more interesting.



I like plants with soft, silvery leaves.  Silver, grey and white sparkle in the garden during the day, and late into the evening.  They also serve to highlight the areas where they grow.  Silver foliage does a good job of visually separating flowers of different colors, which might otherwise clash.



Silvery foliage plants can be useful in weaving one’s ‘plant collection’ into a more refined and pleasing display.  It allows one’s eyes to rest, and offers an interesting contrast to the more dramatic plants in our garden’s collection.

Even if we are managing an arboretum, we still want to create a beautiful and comfortable place for people.  Unlike staging a rock collection, we can’t simply line up our plants, one beside another, without thoughtful consideration for how we display them.


Hardy Begonia and a Japanese fern ‘Apple Court’ grow together in a pot in a shady area carpeted with Vinca.


Plants are living, growing, responsive organisms.  Their vigor and beauty develops over time, in interaction with their environment and culture.  Just as their stems and leaves interact with one another in the garden, so their roots stretch out to interact with one another in the soil.



We, as gardeners, curate this ever changing, interactive whole.  And that is why it is up to us to give thought to the placement, culture and context of every plant we bring home to our garden.

Woodland Gnome 2017


Newly planted birds nest ferns will spend summer in our fern garden.


“Green Thumb” Tips:  Many of you who visit Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help you grow the garden of your dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.  If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page. 

I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3 Deadhead!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 10 Understand the Rhythm

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 11 The Perennial Philosophy

‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios



About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

3 responses to “‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 12: Color and Context

  1. Nice post!
    (Your clump of Siberian Iris is pure perfection!)

  2. I love these tips for getting the ideal garden for each person 🙂

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