Color naming

Dig into color with your garden and discover a deeper connection

COLOR IS SEDUCTION. It’s both delicious and one of nature’s most sophisticated tools, designed to capture the attention of all living creatures. With pollinators searching for pollen and nectar and hungry animals searching for ripe berries, we humans are under the spell of color.

In the spring of 2018, shortly after my father died, I started creating color studies of the plants in my garden. Far from any sort of botanical illustration, it was a daily exercise, doodling really, and a much-needed distraction from grief. The garden is my canvas, and color is my muse. I guess you could say I’m a horticulturist.

My little garden in West Seattle is saturated with color. Orange and rusty brown appear again and again throughout the year, starting in the spring, when Chocolate Tulips ‘James Wild’ push through new lemon-lime-orange growth on Spirea japonica ‘Magic carpet’. A few weeks later, a strong stomach is needed as the foliage matures to chartreuse and bright pink flowers cover the small shrub. It’s not for everyone, but ‘Magic Carpet’ makes my color-loving heart sing.

There’s a delightful feedback loop for identifying color. The more we look, the more we see.

Typically, a color is defined – by its color: a generally accepted logic, if a bit circular, lacking in scientific rigor, imagination and romanticism, in my humble opinion. But when color, memory, and association collide, our mastery of color improves.

In addition, naming colors puts us in conversation with others. If you say “orange,” we’re probably both picturing an orange-orange. But if you say ‘peach’, ‘apricot’, ‘tangerine’ or ‘pumpkin’, all of a sudden you’ve helped me to ‘see’ various expressions of what is still fundamentally orange. I never tire of this play on words which, along with my color studies, deepens my appreciation of the generous multiplicity of hues in my flower beds.

Shortly after the tulips, the beer- and bronze-colored blooms of the Pacific Coast Hybrid irises arrive in my garden, along with rock rose ‘Cheviot’, a hardy evergreen groundcover covered in apricot tissue paper blooms in late spring and early summer. Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, an uninterrupted bloomer, carries the theme throughout the growing season.

Repeating a color or variations on a hue helps direct your eye across a landscape, making even a small space seem larger, and establishes a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) harmony between plantings.

Recording the colors in and beyond my garden encourages me to slow down and be careful. Now, many years later, what began as a simple exercise has become essential, a meditative practice that quiets my mind even on days when my clumsy attempts fail to produce what nature does so elegantly.

My garden is a beautiful distraction that taught me to cultivate a daily practice. In addition to happy highs and party days, the past few years have seen plenty of hard, loud, and broken parties. Doing something – anything, really – on a daily basis is courting boredom. Sometimes all I can do is step out of the doldrums and watch for the next wave of wonder and awe. It always happens. My practice is walking between that day and that one.