Monday 18 December 2017

Diarmuid Gavin Gardening: bright horizons

Flowers are not the only way of introducing colour to the garden - embrace bright paints to keep it cheery all year long

Garden in Ashford, Co Wicklow
Garden in Ashford, Co Wicklow

Diarmuid Gavin

We embrace the rainbow choice of colours which grace our gardens through the flowering plants we cultivate, but we are often at a loss when it comes to being brave with paint.

We have always been liberal with tins of white masonry paint, which may be a throwback to the white, lime-washed thatched cottages in rural towns and villages. But stark white can appear cold in a garden on those days where the sun fails to make an appearance.

I've always embraced the joy of colour, perhaps influenced by the iconic gnome garden which brightened up Ballyboden in the suburbs of Dublin for a few decades from the 1970s.

Hundreds of gaily painted characters stood to attention on a tiny sloping site, observing the world outside go by, augmented by the occasional oriental Buddha, wishing well, cast-iron Victorian garden lamp and hanging baskets tumbling with red plastic roses (which remained in flower all year round).

The display was created by a Mrs Pegman who loved her exuberant creation, and the garden certainly made me smile in my younger days. But it always struck me as odd that some adults tut-tutted as they passed. They regarded this display as ostentatious and tasteless. However, Mrs Pegman wasn't inhibited - she wished to share the joy of colour and humour.

Occasionally we relax our hesitations and use vibrant exterior colour well. Tourists queue to have their photos taken beside the elegant and bright doors of Georgian Dublin, which have been dressed in shades of red, bright hues of blue, yellow and pink.

And around the country, whole towns have embraced the notion of rows of brightly painted houses brightening up the dullest day. Sneem and Dingle in Kerry and Kinsale in Cork are picture postcard perfect, presenting a vibrant face of Ireland to visitors from home and abroad.

In an effort to escape the rather grey pebble-dashed suburbs of my childhood, I brought Mrs Pegman's heritage of colour to the garden makeover show on television in the UK.

For a few years, no block or brick wall, or indeed garden fence, could escape me and my paintbrushes! The addition of a fresh coat of bright paint made a cheap, cheerful and dramatic change for the TV camera. It caused the audience at home to debate - and they were right to, as not all colours work with our light level. Blue was a favourite of mine and others for years. But while light blues (such as the trademarked barleywood blue favoured by Alan Titchmarsh) may look great in the summer sun, in the grey light of winter it tends to look cold and a bit miserable.

The other week, however, I visited a garden which embraces blue to incredible effect. La Majorelle, just outside the walls of Marrakesh in Morocco, was created in the 1930s by a French painter and was restored in more recent years by Yves Saint Laurent. Its walls, raised ponds, pavilions and walkways dazzle, dressed in a wonderfully bright cobalt blue (pictured main).

In La Majorelle, every terracotta pot and urn is painted in a contrasting hue. Burnt orange lined up beside powder blue, which in turn stands beside bright yellow.

The desire wasn't to create a tasteful scene, it was actually to display some exuberance. Historically, white was the colour of architectural modernists with Irish designer Eileen Grey painting her E-1027 house in startling white, its reflection shimmering against the blue Mediterranean on the Côte d'Azur. Designer Le Corbusier also bathed the Villa Savoye at Poissy, France in white.

In Mexico, the architect Luis Barragán used bright pink accented walls in his horse ranch which caused a sensation and made clear that, in apt situations (even in Ireland), when the light from the sun is clear and dazzling, bright cheerful colours can shine. I was inspired by Barragán to use yellow and pink walls on planter beds in a garden in Co Wicklow (pictured above) and a large expanse of pink in a Tipperary garden. But it's not just whole coloured walls which can create drama. Highlighting features using colour can also can add to the joie de vivre of a garden scene. In Venice Beach, California and Key West, Florida residents use wooden Adirondack chairs painted in pastel colours to startling effect.

City spaces such as pubs and restaurants can get away with American Hamptons colours, supplied by the likes of Farrow and Ball, as there is plenty of supplementary lighting when the sun doesn't visit. However, in general, darker hues are more successful within our lower light levels. In my experience, a deep, dark navy can look luxurious in a courtyard garden situation, especially if there is a foliage theme to the planting.

To disguise a feature in a garden, it can be useful to paint with a dark green such as British racing green.

However, my favourite colour for use in garden settings anywhere is aubergine (also known as deep plum or dark damson). A deep shade of purple can look fantastic as background to a planted garden, with details of bark, stem, leaf and often flower standing out clearly against this inviting and luxurious colour.

I've never found the shade I favour 'off the shelf', so it's usually a question of checking out sample cards from the paint mixers supply and colour matching. The key to a good aubergine mix is to keep adding more black.

Go green

To see an impressive display of conifers and calcifuges, visit the arboretum at Kilmacurragh, Kilbride, Co. Wicklow which is managed by the national Botanic Gardens.

This week in the garden:

If I’ve inspired you to introduce some colour as a background to your garden, or if you wish to brighten up a feature wall, our current dry weather means conditions are perfect. Some preparation is needed, however:

1. Wire brush the surface to ensure  that you remove dirt or old, flaky bits  of paint.

2. Depending on the surface (for instance, if it’s been painted or treated before) you may need to use a primer. Take a picture of the area and bring the snap to your paint supplier for advice.

3. Always use masonry paint on concrete or rendered surfaces.

4. As you would with colours indoors, ask for some sample pots of varying colours and shades to try on patches, apply them and let them dry in — this will allow you to view the final colour in the different morning, noon and evening light, and will help you make decisions about what shades you love and what you couldn’t live with.

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