Red hot

The bright red of ‘Lighthouse’ salvia is strong stuff. — Proven Winners

The bright red of ‘Lighthouse’ salvia is strong stuff. — Proven Winners

The color of passion, danger and courage, red is not for the faint of heart.

Some gardeners ban it entirely from their color schemes, afraid that it will grab all the attention. Let’s face it – red is arresting. Why else are stop signs and brake lights a bright shade of scarlet?

Still, some of our favorite things are a rich and sumptuous red. Classic roses. Fat Dutch tulips. Ripe tomatoes on the vine. Used judiciously, red can give a powerful jolt to the landscape. When the serene pastels of springtime start to look pallid in the glaring summer sun, consider turning up the heat by adding some strong color to the garden palette.

Ken Selody, owner of Atlock Farm in Somerset, planted a standard perennial display garden when he started his nursery and greenhouse business 25 years ago. It looked great in April and May, when pinks, yellows and lilacs rule the palette, he says.

“But the whole rest of the season, it just wasn’t punchy enough,” he recalls. “When the sun beat down at the height of summer, the things that really looked good were the bright and bold stuff, especially the reds. In fact, I turned this garden into a red border and people loved it.”

But they didn’t necessarily buy into it.

“They said ‘Wow!’ when they saw the red-leafed shrubs and the hot colored flowers, but then turned around and announced, as if it were an unwritten rule, ‘I don’t have any red in my garden,” Selody says.

Many of our fondest garden dreams are influenced by British notions of “proper” color schemes where pale colors dominate (think of the “white” garden at Sissinghurst, or Gertrude Jeykll’s soft harmonies). These work well in the misty English countryside and the milder light of northern climates, London being at roughly the same latitude as Newfoundland.

Jeykll’s “Color Schemes for the Flower Garden,” first published in 1914, ranks as one of the most influential gardening books of the 20th century. But even she favored brilliant scarlet bee balm, vivid crocosmias and seriously red dahlias in her August garden. One of her strategies was to concentrate strong color at the midpoint of a long border, tempering its dominance with cooler blues, whites and yellows at either end.

Try the cooler reds as in this ‘Scarlet Star’ verbena. — Proven Winners

Try the cooler reds as in this ‘Scarlet Star’ verbena. — Proven Winners

Red doesn’t just figuratively leap out -- it literally comes at you, and it can produce an unsettling feeling if it isn’t used appropriately.

But, truthfully, red flowers are nearly always balanced by leafy greens, their exact complimentary color on the color wheel. Christopher Lloyd, one of today’s top British garden authorities, calls red “nothing to fear,” and claims the only real mistake is using large blocks of undiluted red, as in endless stretches of blazing red salvias with flowers that conceal nearly all of the foliage. “Indigestible,” he carps in “Color for the Adventurous Gardener” (Firefly Books, 2001).

Occasional bursts of high-test red can be achieved by choosing spring-blooming Oriental poppies and tulips, plants with brief bursts of flowers. For longer-lasting color, consider dahlias, begonias or summer annuals including petunias, verbenas and geraniums. Tone down any excessive brightness with dark foliage (from cannas or coleus), with deep, intense blues (from salvias and lobelias) or with soothing green foliage plants (evergreen backgrounds work well).

It’s important to remember that all bright reds are not created equal. As designer Susan Cohan of Susan Cohan Gardens in Chatham points out, there are cool reds with undertones of blue and warm reds with hints of orange.

“They don’t get along at all,” she says, “so stick with one or the other.”

Cool, deep reds, which can be compatible with paler pinks, yellows and blues are probably easiest to work into color schemes. The hotter reds really cry out for colors equally strong and vibrant, like orange, gold and bright yellow. Extroverts who favor stimulating color can go wild with these.

Cohan also notes that there are fabulous reds in foliage, berries and stems, too – the heuchera ‘Autumn Leaves,’ the translucent red fruit of viburnum and the brilliant stems of red-twigged dogwood are three examples. We may be seduced by flowers, but foliage lasts all season providing durable color that flowers cannot. And don’t forget other, “non-planty” additions.

“Shiny, fire engine red metal furniture can be a lovely accent, a visual clue that says ‘Come here, do this,’” Cohan says. “I wish I had the guts to paint my fence red – maybe some day, maybe not. The point is that you need to be purposeful when you use red.”

And brave enough to embrace the vivid. As Lloyd puts it: “To avoid growing red flowers because the color is difficult is as tragic as wanting to be middle aged before you have savoured the elixir of being young, adventurous and carefree.”