I’ve seen orange avoided in garden design a lot; people fear it’s too bright, possibly unsophisticated and garish. However, the colors you use in your garden is not a matter of ‘taste’ but merely of personal preference. Gertrude Jekyll, the Victorian/Edwardian garden designer who created vast pastel drifts of flowers, frequently used orange to punch up her gardens. Orange can rule over a garden of hot, intense colors or be used with restraint as occasional accents to gardens in cool or pastel colors. It’s all in how they’re combined.
Every gardener is acquainted with the orange Oriental poppy. The bright orange is the original color of the species, and it’s also the fastest growing cultivar of the family, more aggressive than the red, white, pink or grape colored versions. Try pairing this plant with Centaurea montana, the perennial bachelor’s button. This blue flowered perennial blooms at the same time as the Oriental poppy, making a wonderful complementary color pairing. It’s also shorter, which makes it fit nicely at the poppy’s feet. It helps hide the bare spot that occurs if the poppy goes summer dormant.
The small pansy ‘Jolly Joker’ has a bright orange face with deep purple edges. Wonderfully fragrant, this plant invites other orange/purple matches, like dark purple ‘King Arthur’ or ‘Black Knight’ delphiniums with orange daylilies or Asiatic lilies like ‘Enchantment’. Another plant that comes in this combination is Lychnis ‘Vesuvius’, a first cousin of Maltese Cross, which has dark purple/maroon foliage and bright orange flowers.
Other good orange plants include the small poppy ‘Double Tangerine’ which blooms most of summer, trollius ‘Orange Queen’, tritomas (Red Hot Pokers), pansy ‘Padparadja’, dahlias ‘Procyon’ and ‘Babylon Bronze’, sunflower ‘Orange Sun’, canna ‘Wyoming’, tuberous begonias with their long lasting bright flowers, Maltese Cross, venidium, tithonia aka Mexican sunflower, and, of course, marigolds, calendulas and nasturtiums.
Orange doesn’t have to be used with complementary colors, of course. Try using it with blooms with analogous colors. Put the orange daylily with some orange ones in a large drift- use a lemon yellow instead of a golden one to tone it down. Or try orange, yellow and green flowered gladioli for a bright but soothing blend- that grouping always makes me think of Popsicles for some reason. Orange flowers also look stunning paired with gray-green or blue-green foliage, such as rue, blue spruce or ‘Blue Rug’ junipers.
Orange mixed with white makes apricot or salmon, colors thought to be more ‘tasteful’ and easier to work with in many garden schemes. If you love warm colors but don’t want bright, use peach/apricot with soft yellows and warm pinks. The pansies ‘Imperial Antique Shades’ and ‘Imperial Frosty Cherry’ are blends of these colors. The snapdragon mix ‘Jamaican Mist’ and the annual phlox mix ‘Phlox of Sheep’ (both Thompson & Morgan http://www.thompson-morgan.com/ exclusives) are blends of these colors and look gorgeous together. Add some salmon petunias and ‘Apricot Basket’ alyssum and you have a scheme for a whole annual garden with a soft, warm glow! Put any of these plants together with some lavender flowers and you have the complementary color scheme again, but toned down to a whisper.
Some other beautiful apricot colored blooms are provided by Papaver anomalum, a dwarf poppy that blooms summer and fall, irises ‘Ask Alma’ and ‘Ginger Swirl’, some selections from the ‘Summer Pastels’ yarrow blend, ‘Apricot’ foxglove, Sweet William ‘Salmon Shades’, and roses like ‘Alchymist’, ‘Jude the Obscure’, and ‘Winter Sunset’.
Of course, orange really comes into its own in autumn. Various shades of burnt orange are available in chrysanthemums and many plants have leaves that turn glorious hot shades- sumac, Norway maple and ‘Goldflame’ spirea are some of the best. Some grasses turn orange as they die in fall, and the orange and purple scheme appears again as the asters begin to bloom.
Site your orange flowered plants in an area that receives late afternoon sun- the low rays accentuate the hot colors, making them glow like embers. A west facing area is best, with the orange backlit by the setting sun. Oriental poppies and iris, with their translucent petals, are particularly nice used this way.
So don’t be afraid to use orange in the garden. It’s a good color. Honest! Just ask Gertrude Jekyll.