The brightest idea in gardening right now doesn't come in a seed packet, but out of a can of paint. People are splashing a coat of Chinese red on the garden gate, painting the tool shed mustard yellow and tinting their terra-cotta pots a dusky blue.
Bright paint on walls, fences, arbors, benches and flowerpots wakes up the garden and gives gardeners a new way to work with colors.
Roses and daisies blooming in front of a wall painted to complement them absolutely glow. Painted surfaces also have a way of making a garden more cozy and domestic, just as color establishes a pleasant mood indoors.
George Little and David Lewis, garden artists on Bainbridge Island in Washington, use color to spark their imaginations and to keep their garden lively.
"We love color in the garden, and people, especially in the Northwest, are terribly afraid of color," Lewis says. "We have been trying to introduce blues and beautiful verdigris and reds and all kinds of colors."
An intense blue wall in their garden, made of hardy board, a cement fiberboard available at builder's supply shops, is hung with mirrors and art. It looks like a painted stucco wall, and seems to draw light into a shaded area of the garden, Lewis says. The foliage and exotic colors of tropical plants stand out strikingly against the blue.
"It is an incredible backdrop," he says. "It feels really right."
Little and Lewis were inspired by trips to Mexico and the fearless use of color they found there.
"We bring a lot of courage for color back with us from Mexico," Little says. "They do the most marvelous things ingenuously, and we decided to take more risks and have fun."
Most gardeners are already adept at playing with color. The experience of putting together beautiful combinations of flowers and foliage is really all you need to start experimenting with paint in the garden.
Carry flowers, paint chips or living-room pillows around in your garden to see if their colors work in the dappled light under the trees or the bright sunshine around a swimming pool. The experts at a paint shop can match the colors you choose.
Deciding what to paint is perhaps a more tricky decision. You could build confidence by starting small, with flowerpots for the patio. Garden gates and benches make a stronger statement visually, and have more impact on the rest of the garden. If you feel bold, look for a bigger canvas.
"We didn't say, `We're going to do a blue wall,'" Little says. "We put up a wall and stood back and looked at it and said, `Let's be risky and do this blue.' "
Interior decorators sometimes put color or fabric on only one wall of a room for contrast. This technique works particularly well outdoors. A bright pink paint job on one side of the garage is probably enough to perk up the whole garden.
You could also choose a color and repeat it here and there. A Kansas City gardener's yellow garden gate has a stylish crispness that complements her gray clapboard house, and she has used the color again on a big yellow bench against the back fence. She even has a sunny yellow watering can.
Colors you might never use indoors can look terrific outside. A garden designer in San Francisco designed a sizzling orange wall for a courtyard and planted a purple butterfly bush in front of it. Low walls that serve as benches are painted rich magenta and blue. A tall screen of evergreens behind the orange wall softens the angles and maintains balance.
Red, magenta and purple all look luxurious in natural light. Yellows, soft pinks and blues are cool and friendly. If you can't decide, try them all. A gardener in Des Moines, Iowa, who loves all colors, changes the color scheme in his front-yard garden by painting the front door whenever the mood strikes him. One season it's yellow, the next it might be green. The price of a can of paint isn't much more than another rose bush, he says, and the color lasts all summer long.
Gardeners shouldn't feel inhibited when they wield a paintbrush instead of a trowel, Lewis says. There's much to be gained.
"Every gardener is an artist in their own way," he says. "And every year, the garden is a new canvas. You can change it."
Just a splash
Colorful walls, furniture and other decoration will add bright, strong notes to the garden. You may need to experiment with several tones until you find the right ones, say George Little and David Lewis, garden artists whose colorful garden on Bainbridge Island in Washington is visited by several thousand people every year. Little and Lewis (www.littleandlewis.com or 206-842-8327) make garden sculpture, fountains and other decoration.
Here are some of their suggestions:
Paint sample swatches on a board or on a flowerpot and study them in the garden.
Freshen the palette of your garden by changing the shade or intensity of painted surfaces every few years. If you get tired of yellow, switch to red.
Mix colors. If you're painting a fence, for example, paint the fence posts yellow and the planks magenta.
Pick up colors from around the garden. Match the intense red of a dahlia or the orange flash of koi in the pond.
Please yourself. "We do what we think will amuse us, or what is beautiful," George Little says. "There has never been a plan for this garden."