The Gaudy Garden

– Posted in: Garden Design

It\'s big, it\'s ruffled, it\'s gaudy; it\'s \'Far West\' gladiolus.A while back, I read that Sarah Raven, the author of one of my favorite gardening reads, The Bold and Brilliant Garden, originally wanted to call her book The Gaudy Garden. If I remember correctly, someone talked her out of it, using the reasoning that no one would buy a book with that title. Well, I know that she’d have sold at least one copy, because I would have bought it.

Since then, I’ve often contemplated the concept of a gaudy garden, and I’ve tried to pitch the idea of an article on the subject to several magazines. There’s been no interest, so maybe I am alone in loving the idea. But somehow, I’m guessing that there might be at least a few others of you who would find the topic as intriguing as I do.

Tulips, such as the color-changing \'Antoinette\', are a must-have for gaudy spring gardens.Maybe the problem is how you interpret the word “gaudy.” It makes me think of things that are brightly colored, exuberant, lively, extravagant, and yes, maybe a little over-the-top, in a fun way. But my spell checker gives me a number of other synonyms with negative connotations: garish, loud, tasteless, tawdry, decorated to an unpleasant degree. So fine, one person’s cheerful is another person’s kitschy.

I didn’t set out to create a gaudy garden; I imagine most people don’t. It’s one of those things that kind of creeps up on you: one dinner-plate dahlia here, one outrageously orange zinnia there, and before you know it, yep, you’ve got a gaudy garden. If you suspect your own garden might be heading that way, here are some warning signs to watch for.

Gorgeous globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) is the essence of gaudiness.Shocking Colors. The most obvious symptom of a gaudy garden has to be retina-searing colors: vivid reds, intense oranges, vivacious yellows, and vibrant magentas. If you tend to stick with all soft colors – delicate pastels in flowers and soothing greens, blues, and grays in foliage – then no fears of gaudiness for you. If you occasionally toss in a bit of bright yellow or red for contrast, then you’re probably still safe. But if you find yourself gravitating toward quantities of Knock Out roses (Rosa ‘Radrazz’), ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnias, and ‘Margarita’ sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas) – well, my friend, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re on your way toward creating a gaudy garden.

The gigantic flower heads of hills-of-snow hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) definitely fit into a gaudy garden.What about white? For many, the concept of a white garden has become the ultimate symbol of tastefulness and restraint. But honestly, have you tried looking at a lot of white and bright silver on a sunny day? It’s enough to give anyone a headache. And the purer the white, the more blinding it is. If you keep your whites where they get some shade, then you’re quite safely in tasteful territory. But if you insist on using generous clumps of hills-of-snow hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), or other bright whites in your full-sun spaces, then you might be a gaudy gardener.

Oh, gosh, do people *really* put pink and yellow together? They do if they\'re gaudy!

And if you delight not just in planting single bright colors, but in combining them, then truly, there is no hope for you. Red or hot pink with yellow, orange with purple, magenta with chartreuse: trust me, they’re guaranteed to get a reaction from visitors, and you’d better be prepared that it’s not always going to be positive. (But who cares what they think, anyway?)

Variegated foliage *and* bright pink flowers? \'Goldmine\' phlox is truly a gift for gaudy gardeners.Unnatural Delights. Gaudy gardeners tend to gravitate toward anything that’s out of the ordinary. Foliage that is vividly striped, splashed, or spotted with a contrasting color? Check. Startlingly oversized leaves or flowers? You bet. Ridiculously frilled, flounced, or doubled blooms? Oh my, yes. Stems that are curled or contorted into unnatural shapes? Sure thing. It definitely takes a good dose of self-confidence to celebrate freakishness in the garden. I’m not saying you have to like these oddities, just that you find them fascinating, even if it’s just in an “oh my gosh, that’s so horrible I can’t take my eyes off of it” way.

If you\'re a fan of \'Pink Double Delight\' and \'Coconut Lime\' echinaceas, you\'re probably a gaudy gardener!

Yeah, I\'m gaudy, and I\'ll crow about it!Exterior Decorating. Oh, yeah, you know what I’m talking about, and it’s not the occasional little bunny ornament or mosaic stepping stone: it’s got to be big, or bright, or bizarre (with bonus points if it’s all three). Striped or spotted furniture. Multiple gazing balls in a rainbow of colors, not just sitting sedately on pedestals but also dangling from branches or floating in water. Quirky birdhouses that no self-respecting bird would ever actually live in. Silly signs. Fluttering flags. Even the whole-house treatment, with some outrageous paint color that was never meant to be sold by the whole gallon, for goodness sake. It’s not about creating focal points; it’s about creating an experience, and making a statement.

So, what do you think, my fellow garden bloggers – are you a gaudy gardener? Or do you prefer the give-me-peace-in-my-garden-I have-enough-drama-in-my-life approach?

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Les July 20, 2008, 7:07 am

I am proud of my gaudy garden, most of the plants you mentioned – I have. My gaudy garden is in the front where it is very public, and where I have enough sun for the oranges, reds, burgundies and purples. However, my most common color combination is burgundy and chartreuse. I also have a private restful garden in the back that is very shady. It is full of greens, variegated foliage, white flowers with a few blues and purples tossed in.

“Bad taste is better than no taste at all.”

Hey, Les, your garden sounds a lot like mine. Welcome to the Gaudy Gardeners Club!

Frances July 20, 2008, 7:19 am

Hi Nan, your gaudy colors are wonderful to these eyes. We have all the no nos you mentioned here. And when I am shopping for more plants, unbelievable, eh?, I look for the brightest color possible. Especially at this time of year when the intense sun washes the lighter colors out. I’m not as big on the variegation, but dark or yellow leaves? I’ll buy it. Sometimes I think it is the fading of my eyesight that calls for the colors, lol.

Yep, I knew you’d be with us, Frances. But hey, I’m not saying that bright colors, quirky plants, and eccentric ornaments are “no no’s”; they make me happy, and apparently they do the same for many others as well. Funny you should mention having poor vision; I do as well, so hmmm…maybe unexplained gaudiness is a sign one should schedule a visit to an optometrist.

Cindy T. July 20, 2008, 12:28 pm

Nan, I most definitely have a gaudy garden … I qualify in all 3 categories! Shocking colors: the right combination of orange and purple can knock my socks off, as they did last year when a Profusion Orange zinnia reseeded itself next to purple angelonia. Unnatural delights: Mickey Mouse Taro has to be my favorite. Exterior decorating: you left out rusty stuff, a subcategory at which I excel. I dabble in all of those you mentioned, however! Great post … I think I need that book.

Hi there, Cindy! Oh yeah, what did we do before there were ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnias in the world? They’re the best. Good point about the rusty stuff; I love it too. I wasn’t sure if I could count it as gaudy, being that it’s kind of a nice natural color. But if you have lots of it, then sure, gaudy it is! (My favorite rusty things are the old blades from sickle-bar mowers – very lethal-looking.)

Mr. McGregor's Daughter July 20, 2008, 12:50 pm

Gaudy is fun! I’m not sure if I could live in a totally gaudy (or even Gaudi) garden, but here & there it really livens things up. I love shocking color combos (magenta & chartreuse is a fav). I am slightly gaudy, in that I do have some shocking color combos & I love jazzed up foliage. It keeps my garden from looking too romantic (all that purple, blue, pink & white). But gaudy ornaments? I prefer to see them in other gardens where I can laugh at them. I like nothing better than to see a front garden chocked with gnomes, wishing wells, flamingos, kissing frogs, kissing Dutch people, giant pinwheels… the list goes on & on.

I don’t know, MMD – can one really be just slightly gaudy? I’ll have to think about that. I totally get your liking gaudy ornaments in other people’s gardens, where you can chuckle (or snicker) at them for a short while but not have to actually *live* with them.

Pam/Digging July 20, 2008, 2:15 pm

What a fun post, Nan. Your combinations shown in the images are inspiring for those of us who admire gaudy gardens—and I definitely count myself among them. As for my own garden? It’s somewhere in between. But I aspire to more gaudiness!

Oh, don’t sell yourself short, Pam – I’d say that anyone with a bottle tree automatically qualifies as a full-fledged Gaudy Gardener!

Fern R July 20, 2008, 3:06 pm

My mother-in-law might be a gaudy-in-a-nice-way gardener. She really likes life sized animal statues (she has a couple of cows, a crocodile, squirrels, deer…) and has a couple of different gazing balls, one is green and I think the other is silver. But it really is a nice garden, that fits her personality. She has a hillside planted with fruit trees and a quaint, fenced-in vegetable garden. Her pool area is decorated with big pots that are overflowing. It’s one of those gardens that makes you smile, not step away in horror.

Hi Fern! Yes, evoking a smile is what being a gaudy gardener is all about, so I’d say your MIL qualifies – and good for her!

Benjamin July 20, 2008, 6:33 pm

Nan to the rescue on a downer day for this reader. Thanks! But what did I spy with my little eye–a photo of HIDEOUS coneflower cultivars with someone’s watermark across them? Oh my my my my. I have two garden ornaments, both provided to me as jokes by my “mentor” (mom): plastic pink bird that begins with an “F” and a gnome. I worry about people giving me garden “junk” I have to put out because I’m a “gardener” now. I need to stop “using” quotation “marks” because they “can” send the wrong “message” too easily. “Eh hem.”

Those coneflowers were meant especially for you, Benjamin. Never fear, they are not in my garden; I staged the shot in the sales area at work. Because certainly, I have nothing here that could compare with them to make my point about unnatural plants.

Annie in Austin July 20, 2008, 8:14 pm

My last post featured Setcresea/Purple Heart with Crocosmia (probably ‘Lucifer’), so there might be a little gaudy in my garden too, Nancy.

It’s interesting to hear you enclose certain white flowers into this fold…. my very first blog post a few years ago dealt with a gaudy white flower.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Ooh, Annie, that setcresea/crocosmia combo definitely qualifies. I think I’ll have to borrow that idea. Thanks for the other link, too; yep, that hibiscus is right up there with the white hydrangeas for gaudiness.

Lisa at Greenbow July 21, 2008, 10:34 am

I am guilty of loving those gaudy colored flowers. I can tell you my DB tries his best to keep me from putting another “item” in the garden.

Don’t feel guilty about being gaudy, Lisa – be proud. Look at all the good company you have!

Lisa at Greenbow July 21, 2008, 10:39 am

P.S. I meant to say how much I like the new format for GGW. I haven’t had to scroll way down the page to read a post. Great.

I’m glad it’s working well for you. I’m also glad you mentioned it; I didn’t even know we *had* a new design!

Ann July 22, 2008, 8:41 am

I aspire to the gaudy garden! I’ve always been more restrained, but now I find I want to splash the color more and add some zaniness!

Welcome to the club, Ann. Embrace your inner gaudiness, and if anyone tries to discourage you, sneak over to their house some night and stick a plastic flamingo in their yard!

Layanee July 23, 2008, 11:13 pm

Everyone needs a bit of ‘gaudy’ in the life and the garden also!

You bet, Layanee! I know for sure that I have a lot more fun gardening now that I’ve embraced my inner gaudiness.

Theresa in Mérida July 29, 2008, 5:44 pm

I adore the gaudy garden. I am a cottage gardener by nature and I think it’s very easy to slip into gaudiness. That hot pink and lime green just screams to be in my garden. I realized one day that my friends all have grown up houses and gardens and I have bright colourful whimsical one.

Aw, Theresa, who really wants to grow up, anyway? I’ll bet your friends wish their gardens were as fun as yours!

Kathrynls July 31, 2008, 10:41 am

I loved the article and your website and want to have a gaudy garden as soon as i am mobile after a broken ankle. Color and contrast is what it is all about. Wish i could visit in person and smell the greens, golds and fushias!!

We’ll hope you heal soon so your can get started on your very own gaudy garden. I loved your comment about “smell[ing] the greens, golds, and fuchsias”; when I look at rich colors, it’s like I can actually *taste* them, and yes, sometimes it seems like I can smell them too. Thanks for visiting us!

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