ISSUE 40  |  Nightshade

Color Theory: 10 Perfect Plant Combinations for Autumn

October 09, 2015 1:30 PM

BY Marie Viljoen

“I don’t do frilly,” says curator Diane Schaub. We are standing under the shade of an old magnolia in the English garden, one of three smaller gardens within Central Park’s six-acre Conservatory Garden near the northeast corner of the park. Here are 10 of her perfect color combinations for fall garden beds:

Photography by Marie Viljoen for Gardenista.

Burgundy and Green

“This is as frilly as I go,” she clarifies, indicating a velvet-leafed plant with burgundy leaves, beside the bluestone path. The plant in question is a Solenostemon (formerly classified as Coleus) and the cultivar is “˜Lancelot.’

Above: Solenostemon ‘Lancelot’ (paired with Salvia ‘Paul’) belongs to a crew of leafy annuals whose impact is felt dramatically in this garden, where the seasonal spectacle owes a great deal to plants whose interest lies in their foliage.

Purple, Yellow, and Blue

Above: If you thought leaves were boring, think again. Solenostemon “˜Purple Prince’, black-leafed Dahlia “˜Mystic Illusion’, and Salvia farinacea “˜Victoria Blue’.

Purple and Red

Above: Elephant-eared Colocasia esculenta “˜Black Magic’, Solenostemon “˜Redhead’, and Agastache cana “˜Heather Queen’.

Schaub, who earned a diploma from the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, has been the Conservatory Garden’s curator for 20 years. And while she does not do frilly, she does do color and texture, breathtakingly well. She has a painter’s eye for composition and an architect’s instinct for structural detail.

Purple and Lilac

Above: A bed of Pennisetum setaceum “˜Rubrum’, Salvia x “˜Indigo Spires’, the leafy and lilac-striped Strobilanthes dyeranus, and elephant-eared Colocasia esculenta “˜Blue Hawaii’. The latter “makes the whole composition work,” says Schaub. Dark purple Pennisetum “˜Vertigo’ is in the background.

Above: The English Garden is arranged in beds radiating from a central pond overhung by the largest crabapple tree in Central Park, leaves now turning yellow. Designed by Betty Sprout and opened in 1937, by the 1970’s this part of the park was considered one of the most dangerous places in New York City.  In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy was formed in response to the neglect the park had suffered in the previous two decades. Its new director, Elizabeth Rogers, earmarked the Conservatory Gardens for renovation.

Above: Lynden Miller, now a legendary public garden designer, but then a painter and home gardener, was asked by Rogers to revisit the original plans. She redesigned the perennial beds. Miller was also vehement in her advocacy for a maintenance budget, something many public plantings sorely and visibly lack. Gardens are work, and this seasonal showcase is not low maintenance. The Conservatory Garden’s staff of six, with the help of 20 regular volunteers, is kept busy.

Above: Within the backbone of green hedging, shrubs, and perennials, the beds are punctuated occasionally by Miller’s trademark: Berberis thunbergii balls. The manicured shape helps prevent the invasive shrub from spreading, by preventing fruit-set. The low evergreen hedges (Ilex crenataEunonymous “˜Manhattan’ and Berberis julianae) allow intimate niches within beds, so that “you arrive in a different and lovely place” every few paces, explained Schaub.

Above: Annuals dominate the interior beds, while the outer arcs are filled with perennials and shrubs. Every winter Schaub (also a fine art major at City College of New York) sketches by hand her new plans for spring and summer schemes. Orders for thousands of summer annuals and perennials must be placed by October of the previous year for May planting, so growers on Long Island have time to propagate enough stock. On planting day, volunteers line up early to carry flats of plants to their assigned positions. Each bed has its own map.

Red, Yellow, and Silver

Above: The red Zinnia “˜Benary’s Giant Deep Red’ pops out in a border with feathery gray Centaurea gymnocarpa, lime green Zinnia elegans “˜Envy’, and the chocolate-y backdrop of Pennisetum “˜Vertigo’. In the background, yellow Rudbeckia laciniata and the silver-leafed sunflowers, Helianthus argophyllus, draw the visitor farther in.

Orange, Yellow, and Lime

Above: A lesson in warmth. From front to back: a yellow variegated Lantana, Arctotis x “˜Flame’, Agastache mexicana “˜Acapulco Orange’, with tall Asclepias curassavica “˜Silky Gold’ behind it, a sprawling sweet potato – Ipomea batata “˜Sweet Caroline Bronze’, and a mass of lime green Solenostemon “˜Dappled Apple’ in the background.

Pink, Fuchsia, and Lime

Above: “Pinks are hard,” says Schaub, discussing color pairing: “Some are bluish; some are orange. You can really err.” Here, the blue pinks are played off against two stalwarts that are used often in these beds: glaucus Melianthus major, in the foreground, and fuchsia-striped Perilla “˜Magilla’. Tall pink Cleome “˜Clio’ brushes against Salvia “˜Waverly’ with silvery cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), hot pink Gomphrena “˜Fireworks’, and lime Ipomea batata “˜Dwarf Marguerite’, which keeps the composition fresh.

Pale Pink and Sky Blue

Above: Pale pink Verbena “˜Lavender Cascade’ does just that over the flagstones, under the tresses of sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) and the sky blue confetti of Browallia americana.

Yellow and Blue

Above: The small yellow flowers of Melampodium “˜Son of Garth’ cluster around the intense blue of Salvia x “˜Indigo Spires’. Solenostemon “˜Lancelot’ and sweet potato (Ipomea batata “˜Dwarf Marguerite’, again) create volume.

Yellow, Lime, and Purple

Above: Below a hedge of clipped Ilex crenata Halloween-ready Dahlia “˜Mystic Illusion’ anchors a corner where purple Alternanthera dentata “˜Rubiginosa’ sprawls between supporting mounds of lime Solenostemon “˜Dappled Apple’ and a variegated and stiff-leafed Plectranthus forsteri “˜Green on Green’. The spires of Salvia guaranitica “˜Royal Purple’ loosen the composition in the background.

Above: Ruby-throated hummingbirds visit the nectaries of Cuphea platycentra “˜David Verity’ as well as a collection of sweetly tubular Salvias, Agastaches and Leonotis, which must put the English Garden firmly on the hummingbirds’ migratory map.

Above: No pesticides are used in this garden, though “I do take a hose to aphids,” says the curator, grimly. A variety of milkweeds lures monarch butterflies to the garden. Their larvae feed on the bitter leaves of the genus Asclepias. On a recent visit, the pale green chrysalis of a monarch hung suspended in gold thread from a blade of purple Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’; it’s the most appropriate garden art I have ever seen.

Above: If you are within reach of New York City, visit this early fall iteration of the English garden before the 21st of October, when all the summer annuals will be removed, and tens of thousands of spring bulbs will be planted for next spring.

And if you are a little late, walk north to the French-style garden where the Korean chrysanthemums on display might just blow your mind.

But that is another story.

For more gardens to admire, journey to Scampston Hall by Dutch Master Piet Oudolf and Cape Town for A Study in Green with Franchesca Watson. You can also spend an entire afternoon exploring all our Garden Visits.