I used to have a serious problem with yellow. As a colour for clothes, for home decor and – most of all – in the garden. Even daffodils were banned. Somehow it seemed too cheery, too bright and, by association, just a little bit tacky and common. I was a sunshine snob.
It’s an affliction that a lot of people share. I’ve lost count of the times garden design clients rule out yellow flowers. It’s true: too much bright yellow can be a mistake. It draws the eye and holds it, making a garden appear small and flat. However, it is the colour of spring, and of optimism, bringing pops of joy when the skies are grey. And anyway – not all yellows are created equal. The creamy yellow of irises such as ‘Butter and Sugar’ is sublimely relaxing to the eye, while citrussy limes are refreshing and invigorating.
In any case, I’m delighted to say I am now completely cured of this discriminatory condition. Looking out at my back garden I see golden daffodils shivering in the March wind – and I applaud their cheerful optimism in the face of chill adversity. I have Euphorbia characias, too, in a sunny south-facing bed, its yellow-green bracts crown the grey-green fleshy leaves to regal effect. And, in a pot, a mop of evergreen Carex ‘Evergold’ brightens my patio all year long.
A little later in the year, one of my favourite plant combinations is Alchemilla mollis, a fresh lemon froth above downy scalloped leaves, and the new violet spikes of ‘Hidcote’ lavender. Yellow and purple is a classic colour combination – they’re opposites on the colour wheel, so will always look great together. In the front garden, there’s Sisyrinchium striatum, a handsome architectural plant with spikes of creamy yellow flower buttons that slowly open from May to June. It’s planted with purple alliums and luminous violet-blue Geranium ‘Rozanne’, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Centenary. It’s an absolute gem of a plant, flowering from June to December.
In fact, I’m now planning a yellow and purple border at the back of my garden. I’ve been pondering this particular bed for a while, as it just wasn’t making me happy. Out will come a rather huge Euphorbia mellifera a friend gave me as a tiny seedling a few years back. It’s grown to swamp the whole bed. Along with it a brute of a chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) I planted it to cover the fence behind. Which it did. Enthusiastically. No matter how hard I prune it, it comes back stronger and more determined. Its March flowers are really pretty: dainty cream bells with plum stamens. But it was a mistake, now that I know how vigorous it is. Plus, being at the back of the garden and flowering so early in the year, I don’t really get to appreciate it.
I have another chocolate vine nearer the house, the purple one, and it isn’t brutish at all. Strange, as the RHS lists both as reaching 8-12 metres …What I really want to plant in place of the chocolate vine is Rosa banksiae Lutea, or Leverkusen. I’m very much in love with that primrose yellow froth of flowers. But I must resist or, at an eventual height of 12 metres, it’ll just create the very same problem.
Instead I’m going to plant a perennial border there. It’s at the back of the garden, so it doesn’t get many visitors outside summer. Plus, it’s in the sunniest part of the garden, so it seems the perfect spot for a one-season wonder. I wish I could recreate this border at Audley End, but I don’t have the space for such exuberant planting.
On my wish list are tall grasses, Stipa gigantea probably, Buddleia weyeriana ‘Sungold’ for its honey scent, spires of violet Russian sage (Perovskia), fragrant yellow star jasmine to clamber (gently) over the back fence, more Geranium ‘Rozanne’ at the front and plenty of the luscious butter-yellow Cosmos Xanthos.
Sounds like I’ve got a huge border to plant, but it’s only a couple of metres square, at most. So I’ll have to pare down my yellow ambition. I’ll let you know how it turns out, in summer.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer