Red in the Garden – Part 2

– Posted in: Garden Design

In the last post on red, I talked about using red as the la piece de le resistance, as that startling, snazzy ‘something’ that will knock your socks off.

In this piece, I want to talk about red as the conductor or framework of a composition. I think gardeners find red to be such a threatening color because immediately it gets associated with the color of a red light, blood, etc….all those things we learned as a child that elicit excitement or alarm, such as the photo of these orangish-red poppies.

In fact, red, from the deepest burgundy to a soft muted almost rose color, can be soothing and the base from which so many other colors can play off of. To this day, visitors find it amazing when I show them how I use red as one of my base colors in the garden. In the first picture below, the burgundy sweet potato vine blends in beautifully with the bi-colored sharper red coleus, the delicate spidery fennel leaves and the green of the osteospermum leaves. Do you see how calming and solidifying it is?

In this second picture, all that has been added is the pale yellow osteospermum flower with its black/burgundy center. To my eye, this extra touch of burgundy, which connects directly to the sweet potato vine, makes the already good composition an even stronger one.

Another example of red acting as a subtle tour de force is seen in the photo below with the dark burgundy leaves of the coleus playing off of the deep burgundy/almost black bi-colored tones of the elephant’s ears.

Throughout my garden, I have used the Smoke bush, Cotinus coggyria, as a base color as seen in this photo with the subtle red hues on the leaves and pods of Ricinus communis, the Castor bean.

The deep wine color of Angelica gigas, as witnessed in the close up of it below, once again becomes a springboard from which all other colors can play off of. Surround it with perky yellows, soft apricots and brash oranges and you’ve got yourself one lively country garden. But if you cushion it with deep purples, soft blues, pinks and mauves then you’ve created a more romantic, potentially mysterious composition.

And then take something as simple and elegant as the soft, faded tones of these faded red with purple centered coleus planted up against the stems of what appear to be a deep burgundy canna with a sumptuous white (can you smell the scent) datura…what more could you ask for?

In the following photo, once again red acts as the base color from which all other colors respond. To my eye, the red coleus sets the pace, along with the purple/magenta/silver leaved strobilanthes. The speckled yellow leaves of the abutilon come to the forefront because it plays off of the strength of the red.

The photo below encompasses several shades of red: first in the red edged leaves of the banana leaves, the gregariousness of the  bluish- red etchings in the coleus leaves, hints of the purplish/magenta from the strobilanthes beyond as well as the Cotinus coggyria at the top of the page.

So, for those of you who have found red too risky a color to use in the garden, I hope the above post has helped to alleviate some of your concerns. There are literally dozens of other plants where red is used in a subdued manner which I didn’t even attempt to show. For any of you who have photos that you’d like to share with us on this subject, either send in the link to your blog, or upload the photo to me and I’ll make sure it gets placed on the post. Any other thoughts on red?? Please share….I am always interested in learning more about this multi-faceted color.

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at

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Fran Sorin
15 comments… add one

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Lisa at Greenbow February 14, 2008, 8:11 am

I like the way you have incorporated red into your garden. I too like reds and enjoy finding places or creating places that have red as an anchor.

Thanks for your thoughts. It’s always great to hear from other ‘red lovers’. After writing this post, I’m busy perusing catalogues, checking out all of the different red summer bulbs that I must have for the season. Fran

Frances February 14, 2008, 11:05 am

Lovely lesson on red. What would we do without coleus? You have shown some of my favorite ones, including what looks like Sedona. Wonderful for V-day.

Frances at Faire Garden

Hey Frances,
Always good to hear from you. And how right you are! What would we do without coleus? It’s sexy, fun, vivacious, non-demanding, bountiful and always a ‘solid stand-in’. How many containers have I had throughout the course of the year that looked totally bedraggled and by just plopping a coleus cutting in there and letting it take off, that one plant has done damage control for what could have been a disaster. Although there is much written about coleus, I wonder if we give it enough credit for all that it offers us! Fran

Pam/Digging February 14, 2008, 12:01 pm

Most of the reds shown here look more like purple or pink to my eye. I think the red that some gardeners fear is the orangey red in your first photo.

Hot reds like red salvias, penstemons, and cupheas look darn good in hot climates, paired with purple and contrasted with silver foliage. Do hot reds work in cooler climates too? I’ll be curious to see what your readers have to say.

I’m confused when you use the term cooler climes….I always think of colors as being used in sunny/partial shade or shady conditions. Are you talking about actual USDA Zones….how many frost free days? I love your idea of pairing hot reds with purple and contrasting silver foliage. It sounds luxurious!! Fran

Catherine Kaufell February 14, 2008, 3:14 pm

What an incredibly informative blog. I can appreciate the hard work. Love the images.

Hey Catherine-
Thanks for chiming in. Now I need to get onto your blog and check it out. Garden travels? What could be better?? Fran

Benjamin February 14, 2008, 3:24 pm

Nothing wrong with red, I tell you. And you’re right, red does not mean red, thank goodness. I think about fall color reds, too, when I pair plants that are mostly there for foliar effect. I’m still starting, so we see how it goes, but I think once the flowers in the garden go, the red of leaves and pods and such can give you a more subtle, elegant round two.


I like your focus on the foliar effects. I do think that all too often, we get carried away with the blooms rather than the texture, shapes and colors of foliage throughout the year. My co-blogger, Nan, has written a terrific book called Foliage which is a must read if you’re interested in learning more about how to use foliage effectively in the garden. Also, good for you in embracing ‘red’….I do think it’s one of the most all wonderful of colors in the garden (obviously)…I still have memories of walking to the bus stop as a child in the fall; and each morning checking out the maple tree as I came round the corner to see how much more red it was than the day before. I waited for the day when I knew it had ‘peaked’… was quite glorious!!! Fran

Kim February 14, 2008, 6:50 pm

Lovely reds… but I find them to be energetic rather than soothing. Maybe just because so many people do not use them, that they are exciting when they are found?

Pam/Digging, I definitely think that bright, hot reds work in cooler climates, if given the right background. For example, my house tends toward warm hues naturally, with a warm grey base and pumpkin-colored old brick. I couldn’t use too many cool reds here, as they’d feel washed out but cherry reds (like my ‘Dortmund’ rose, salvia coccinea, and ‘Empress of India’ nasturtium’) really shine in the summer and fall.

Thanks for your comments on how to use red effectively in cooler climes…the only place where I use red in ‘shaded areas ‘ is with Persicaria virginiana ‘Painter’s Palette’. And because the flowers are so delicate, they do send a sort of mild electricity through an area of mostly green hued groundcovers. And I do so love ‘Empress of India’ nasturtium. Fran

Kim February 14, 2008, 6:51 pm

Fran, I meant to ask… any hints you can give on growing angelica gigas? I have wanted to try it here, but admit to having been a bit intimidated. I do love seeing the wild angelicas in the nearby national park, so I really want to give it a shot this year. (And next, of course!)

I have always just planted mine in partially shady soil. I may add some osmocote to the soil when planting (if I happen to have it around) but nothing other than that. Mine just keep on performing….but remember that they are biennials and are supposed to have a short life as well. A few of them placed together are beautiful but if you have the space, 7 or 9 of them make an even stronger statement….this just may be one of my all time favorite plants! Fran

wiseacre February 15, 2008, 10:32 am

When it comes to red I think Humming Birds. I couldn’t do without a huge bed of Bee Balm. Sitting next to feeding hummers is a real treat.

I remember the first time I saw hummingbird buzzing around some red salvia. I thought it was a miracle. Everytime I gaze on one in my garden, I still feel that surge of excitement at seeing them twittering about. Fran

Pam/Digging February 15, 2008, 5:40 pm

Fran, I was referring to hardiness zones in a roundabout way. I guess what I meant is that the quality and intensity of light is different in Southern climates. The sun blazes down here, washing out pale pastels, so using hot colors in summer makes sense.

When I think of places like the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast, however, I think of softer light, great for pastels. Do reds look good under a softer, gentler sun? That’s what I was asking. Kim says they work under the right conditions, which of course is true of pastels here too.

It looks like you got your answer from a post by Kim. And I do appreciate you clarifying what you meant. I keep on thinking of Provence, in southern france, which has such intense, Mediterranean sunlight and how they prolifically use silver leaved plants in their landscapes. And then the thought crossed my mind of Hellen Dillon’s garden in Dublin, Ireland (which is a little gem) where areas of it are boisterous with brightly colored plants (even with those grey skies in the background). Fran

Kim February 15, 2008, 11:04 pm

Pam/Digging, interesting thought. If you ever have a chance to pick up a book called “Gardening with Light & Color” by Marilynn Abbot (sp?) you might be intrigued. She has one garden in the UK and another in Australia, and writes a lot about the differences in quality of light, etc. She tends to use cooling colors (whites, mostly) in her Australia garden to combat the heat, and deep, rich colors in the UK because she feels that the softer light up there washes a lot of pastels out. It seems to go against conventional wisdom of sorts, but then again she makes a convincing argument–complete with pictures.

Fran, you make them sound so easy! I can’t resist… I’ve been thinking about these for so long now that I almost have to try them anyway. 🙂

Thanks for that info. on the book by Marilyn Abbott…am definitely going to check it out. You’re right in that it’s counterintuitive to what we’ve been taught BUT that’s what actually makes it so appealing. And yey, red is just one of those colors….the more you experiment with it, the more you want…’s just being somewhat judicious about what quality and tones of red that you select in relationship to other plants…but like everything else, if I make a mistake, I just trash it or move it to another area in the garden. Fran

jodi February 15, 2008, 11:44 pm

I couldn’t be without red in the garden, either; to me, it’s a jubilant colour, and like Wiseacre, I love the hummingbirds squealing their wings through the Monarda, especially. And as a bit of an opposite to Pam’s situation, red in our garden helps to counteract the fogs that shroud us so often. Plus what’s happier than a brilliant red poppy? (even if my digital camera has a fit about trying to record the colour)

I love the phrase you used ‘the hummingbirds squealing thier wings’. And how I agree….between the monardas, salvias, cardinal climbers, hummingbirds become one of the biggest treats in the summer garden. Thanks for your experience with red in greyish, foggy weather and that it actually works well. Although visiting red gardense in other climes, I never experienced consistently grey clouds and fog throughout the season ( but philly summers are incredibly humid)! fran

Pam/Digging February 17, 2008, 1:17 am

Kim, thanks for the tip about the Abbott book. I’ll look for it.

Layanee February 17, 2008, 4:27 pm

I love red in the garden. It is such a punctuation point! The scarlet red of crocosmia and the brightest of red daylilies are so visible from a distance! I think one of the English gardeners has done a border with all reds…maybe Penelope Hobhouse? I think it was one of hers and she included red swiss chard. What is redder than that!

Punctuation point is a great word to describe red! You are probably right about Penelope Hobhouse and red. I have her book on colors and will check it out. It was most likely when she had her garden several years ago at Titinull. But yes, great point, about Swiss chard. I so love it when used not only in veggie gardens but in mixed borders. Thanks for your input! Fran

Sean February 18, 2008, 1:24 am


Red is ironically one of the best sellers in the nursery business. Catches the eye and can really make a bold contrast to the base color, green. Thanks for sharing these photos and your insight.


And thanks for that input on the tidbit that red is one of the best sellers in the nursery business. This is good news….and gives me hope for the ‘heart and soul’ of American gardeners…now does that sound political or what??? fran

Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 21, 2008, 3:25 pm

I love red in the garden, but it has to be a tint or a shade. I find fireengine, tomato, orange red too jarring. I love wine – I like the color too.

Very funny….yep, I love wine as well….never heard it described as a color but it certainly makes sense. Interesting that you find the orange/red too jarring. It does need to be handled with care but when grouped with yellows and oranges, it’s actually stunning. Also, do you find the orange/red of tomatoes too harsh on your senses? Think about them in a veggie or cutting garden….I can almost smell and taste them….can’t wait for spring! fran

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