Sylvia was without a doubt the coolest person I had ever known. This from my fifth grade point of view. Sylvia was the artist mother of my grade school friend, Amy, and I took lessons in their home. Sylvia drove a pale yellow VW convertible bug with a houndstooth interior. She had amazing red hair and when she drove, wore big sunglasses. The year? 1974. She said for her prom she wore a light green satin dress and carried a bouquet of violets.

At age ten, you don’t really make connections to the things happening in your life; you just sort of compartmentalize them, do as you’re told, (mostly). One day you have drawing lessons; another day you have a violin lesson; you play outdoors; another day you help Grandpa pick peppers, or eat whatever he sent over to the house in a big kraft-paper grocery sack. You don’t see the parts to the composition of your young life until you have some perspective earned in years. But one particular thing Sylvia said to us in class was, “It’s all about Light against Dark. Jeannie, when you are standing at the altar getting married, before you say, ‘I do,’ you have to say, ‘Light against Dark.'” At the time I thought she was being funny, but I got the analogy to the the artistic vow. Years and college classes later illuminated the more subtle aspects to the wisdom behind what she said–Light against Dark in other ways also provides contrast: the dramatic situation of Good vs. Evil; the tragic hero’s quest, all that good stuff.

So here’s how it works in the garden:

1. Start with foliages. You’ve heard me talk about the value of foliage before. On an overcast day, take a hard look out the window. Does the garden look like a amorphous blob? Or can you differentiate between the plants with the various shades of greens you have established? When the lighter greens, the variegated greens, are up against the darker ones, don’t they both look more exciting? More dynamic? This should exist on all levels of your garden, top down, trees down to ground cover. Flowers, while they are like jewelry, an accent, they can assist, and their color contrasts to each other AND the greens of the foliages should be planned so they can be in contrast harmony. That might sound like a conflicting statement, but what I mean is that you would not want two types of variegated foliages together nor a flower with variegation next to variegated foliage. The contrasts exist within a plant, too.

2. After you have assessed the “big picture” stuff, move down to what you see from different points as you walk around. Go down the path, stand on the lawn or other point. Stop, turn and look. Do you see contrasts between and among the different plants? From more personal vantage points? Take some photos and some notes. Then, when you are shopping for plants, you can see where and what you need to add in order to make good new choices.

3. All this applies to container gardens, too; it just is on the smaller scale.

4. The habits of plants and the size of the foliages also impacts contrast to some degree, and sometimes the pruning. When you prune, if done properly, and for the most part here I am referring to flowering shrubs, you allow more light into the center of the plant. This provides for better health for the plant in terms of how it feeds itself AND that you are allowing more air to circulate through. You are also bringing light into the darker places, providing contrasts and shadows. I like to prune in winter so I can see better what I’m doing once the foliage is gone, but you can still take photos and notes now of which plants might contribute better if thinned out (you will forget the lushness of your summer garden come December. I promise).

5. Shadows and Dusk. Shadows are wonderful things in the garden. My favorite time of day is when the sun begins to set and the light is cast in long angles against the plants, shining on the tops and creating shadows along the lawn and garden paths. The contrasts are more subtle. Take the same look at your garden at the end of the day in the way you did earlier in the day. If you spend any time in your garden at night, you will want to be sure to add plants that turn it on when light begins to fade. Add white flowers and silvery foliages, tall narrow things including metallic sculptures to reflect light as well as to make shadows. See how moonlight and landscape lighting might change or enhance what you are seeing.

One last thing: While you are enjoying your garden at the end of the day, consider the lessons and gifts you’ve received from way back points of your life and the value they have brought to you along the way.

BTW, I drive a Volkswagen. 

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Thou Shalt Not Covet...