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Who's Afraid of a Little Orange
updated: Jul 03, 2010, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

It happens a lot. When I get to the place in the interview where I ask new design clients about their favorite colors, I help out by first explaining the difference between cool and warm colors, just to get a read on their preferences. Donning my professor's ascot and corduroy sport coat (with leather elbow patches), it unfolds something like this…

"Green, blue and violet are cool colors: They soothe and bring calm to the garden. In color theory terms, cool hues "recede", blending into the background and making no demands on our attention."

I pause, receiving a nod of comprehension from the client, then reload and start the second volley…

"On the other side of the color wheel are the warm colors: red, yellow and orange. They tend to be more vivid and add excitement to…"

I realize that she didn't hear a word after I mentioned The Color That Shall Not Be Spoken.

"No orange," she snaps, visibly shaken, but mustering a semblance of outward calm.

You'd think I'd said, "And over in that corner we'll put the zombie coop and feed them children and puppies from the neighborhood."

"No orange…please!"

I love orange in all its tints and shades. Who doesn't like California poppies, huh? Anybody out there raising your hand? See, orange isn't so bad.

What about oranges-the fruit? Perfect orbs glowing warmly in the sunshine. Orange adds POP, excitement, sweetness.

Now, granted, you can't just slap orange all over every garden. Keep it the hell away from dainty pink and lavender gardens unless you have a good supply of Dramamine nearby. At least wear protective goggles or a welder's helmet.

But there are some situations where orange is hands-down, the go-to hue.

Take Mediterranean-style West Coast gardens-especially where you have earthy red clay tile, golden sandstone, and the tawny grasses that come with the dry season. The Aloe bainesii at the Santa Barbara Mission is a majestic, sculptural tree that puts on a big show in winter.

Orange-along with its variants like rust, tangerine, salmon and gold-can warm up plant compositions, add playfulness or serious intensity as we reach the blood-red-orange end of the spectrum.

Canna lilies are my workhorses in tropical-themed landscape. Their form is robust, with tall vertical stems and the broad leaves are right out of a Tarzan movie. They are perennial plants (they continue to live from year to year) and grow from an underground rhizome, sorta like a bulb but closer to the surface. Compared to most of the low-water plants I prefer to use, cannas need a bit more water, but if you're gonna squander a few gallons this summer, what a great investment. When they start looking shabby in the fall, cut them all the way to the ground and wait for them to return in spring. Canna are even happy in big containers.

There's a reason people plant a lot of lantana-it's virtually bullet proof and very fast growing. Around the SLO, SB, and Ventura areas, it blooms just about year round, except in the coldest spots where it's treated as an annual and replanted every spring.

Give it a sunny home in just about any soil, keep an eye on it for the first year to make sure it gets off to a good start, and fuggettaboutit. Too much water or fertilizer is a big no-no-don't be a Jewish mother to your lantana!

When you look closely at the "flower" of the lantana below, what you'll see is actually a cluster of smaller flowers. This orange one looks orange, but it also has splashes of yellow mixed in-that gives it a lot more bling and boing.

Caution: The berries are poisonous to humans and pets.

Red-hot poker (Kniphofia species from the lily family) comes to California via South Africa. The foliage is like a big tuft of grass, but it's the cone-shaped flower stalks that bring excitement to a garden.

Kniphofia ranges in color from brilliantly clear yellow through our old friend orange and into deeper reddish shades. It's fun to watch the array of blossoms open from the bottom of the "torch" until they reach the top, taking several days starting in the late spring. There are tall ones and short ones and they all like regular watering to stay vigorous.

Though the clumps gradually increase in mass, don't be too hasty about dividing and spreading them around-they flower best when allowed to stay put for a few years.

Roses come in orange too. I don't know nuthin' about roses and generally find them to be a pain in the ass, so look em up.

Here's how to use orange with a toned-down approach, as a foliage accent. Orange sedge (Carex testacea) looks like grass, but it's really a sedge-this particular one coming from New Zealand. It's a great accent color, as seen below in combination with creeping thyme ground cover and a background splash of tangerine-colored Agastache, a favorites of hummingbirds.

In another part of the same garden-at the home of the amazingly talented fine artist Nicole Strasburg and husband Bill Marazita-we experimented with a warm-colored New Zealand flax (Phormium ‘Jester', a riot of colors striping a broad blade-like leaf) and dwarf red kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos species). It's exciting to design a garden for (no, make that with) an artist who has an adventurous sense of color. This combo greets visitors just outside the entry courtyard.

Ahhhh, cane orchids! Botanically referred to as Epidendrum ibaguense, these relatively carefree members of the sometimes-fussy orchid family put on a show throughout the warmer weather. They love sun but are happiest when their toesies are in some shade, so place them as a background plant with small shrubs or perennials at their base. The stems grow from two to four feet high.

Epidendrums throw out new stems from the outer edges of the base and can easily fill a big flowerpot with their dense, pencil-thin stems. They're the perfect accent plant in a grouping of containers on a patio corner. Some folks grow them in ground bark (like many other orchids, these are epiphytic plants that grow in decomposing wood and organic matter in their natural habitat). If you take that route, be sure to make sure they stay moist.

As with any plant you're considering for your garden, DO YOUR RESEARCH! The biggest mistake people make is to ignore the genetic destiny that's imbedded in a plant's DNA. Know the mature size of every plant you install and give them the room they need to grow without having to hack them back to Hackensack. Provide the soil, water, and sun they need and you'll be blessed with a low-care, natural looking garden.

There-that didn't hurt, did it? Orange is your friend. It's sexy, hot, thrilling, earthy, lighthearted and primordial. And isn't that what we all strive for in our own lives?

Looking for design ideas and cool plants? Subscribe to Billy's e-mail newsletter by dropping him a line at billygoodnick@yahoo.com

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 EDONE agree helpful negative off topic

2010-07-03 01:41 PM

Ed is not afraid of the color orange!


 COMMENT 87144 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-07-04 09:05 AM

Thank you for great ideas. Beautiful photos!


 COMMENT 87153 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-07-04 09:46 AM

What a great topic! I love orange and purple plant combos:

Lion's tail or any of the sunset-colored flax with a catmint "petticoat".

Fine-textured perple Verbenas with the bronze-leaf and butterscotch-flowered Cannas.

Russian Sage and orange Sunrose.

Purple agastache and Carex buchannonii

Califonia Poppy surrounding Lavender 'Grosso'. I use a sprinkling of the coastal form of Ca Poppy mixed in with the huge orange ones. Tones them down a bit.

I think the softer lavender of catmint pairs beautifully with the trendy reds and corals available now in the newer phormiums and coprosmas. I'm very smitten with those warm colors.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2010-07-04 10:13 AM

Seedlady: I'm writing those down. I only steal from the best.


 COMMENT 87183 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-07-04 12:29 PM

Orange can go with several colors and look spectacular. What I don't like is pink against yellow, as in yellow hibiscus and pink crinum.


 COMMENT 87206 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-07-04 02:21 PM

I love orange! Thanks for the fab pics and great info..


 COMMENT 95098 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-08-02 08:36 PM

I LOVE orange. I don't know why it scares people. It is the color of love and exuberance and joy.


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