Orange and Black is the New Black

If you’re from Detroit (or possibly LA), consider this post Halloween-themed. Of course it is. For the rest of us … Giants!!! World Series title number two in three seasons is a sweet, sweet feeling, and in honor of their stunning sweep of a victory, let’s take a look at orange and black in the garden. (And if there happens to be a single Detroit reader still with me at this point, out of respect I will not feature any brooms.)

Today we'll look at black, orange tomorrow; they are very different colors with very different feels. Black is gothic, black is Halloween, black is dramatic, black is sinister, but in the garden black can be surprisingly subtle. In paint, black is a mix of all colors; in light (or film), black is the absence of all color.

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In art terms, the two are opposing, but in the garden both make sense. Its darkness sets off bright and light colors, and at the same time, black seems to absorb light. And therein lies the secret to using black in the garden. Black plants can look stunning and striking, or they can disappear, and their companion choices are crucial.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ is one of the few truly black plants. (Most “black” plants are actually very dark purple, red or blue, but Black mondo grass, as it’s also known, is a bit of a freak. The Tim Lincecum of plants!) Set it off with silver Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ear), and you’ll not only have contrast in color but also in texture and shape. Add Crocus chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’ for a stunning container combination.

In the ground, add the ethereal and ghostly Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum'),

or Artemisia ludoviciana albula (Silver king wormwood),

or perhaps a Hosta hybrid, such as ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ or ‘Andrew.’

O. p. ‘Nigrescens’ grows to a height of 8" and a spread of 12" and its strap-like foliage appears in tufts. A perennial, the plant can be grown from zones 6 through 10 in sun or part shade with moderate water. It’s easily divided, as are hostas, so for a small initial outlay of cash, you could wind up with a bed full of dramatic foliage plants in a few years’ time. There is also a cultivar called O. p. ‘Black Beard,’ so perhaps this is the Brian Wilson of the botanical world, in which case I love and fear it even more.

Plenty of flowering plants produce black blooms, and there should be one for your climate wherever you are. (If you're in the US, look here to find your horticultural zone.)

Violas are often thought of as sweet little pretty plants, but in black, it’s a whole different story. Try Viola ‘Molly Sanderson’ in zones 5 through 7, or Viola ‘Bowles’ Black’ in zones 4 through 8.

There’s plenty of myth and mystery around the search for black orchids and black dahlias, but the black iris is another long sought after and, as of yet, undiscovered enigma. Iris ‘Ruby Chimes’ and Iris chrysographes are two of the closest contenders. Try either with Lilium regale. One of my all-time favorite plants for both looks and fragrance, it was adored by the Victorians, with whom I have very little else in common.

Columbines conjure a knee-jerk and terrifying reaction after the horrific tragedy of 1999, but let’s reclaim the name and remember the little flowers for the innocent beauties they are. Aquilegia vulgaris (European columbine) ‘Black Barlow’ is sophisticated but sweet, and A. v. ‘William Guinness’ is almost cheerful, which is rare for a black plant.

Their little nodding heads are graceful, their stems are slender, and their delicate foliage is ferny. They look fantastic with maidenhair ferns (Adiantum pedatum, one of my favorite botanical names because of the Harry Potter-esque ring to it), and with Geranium pyrenaicum (Pyrenean cranesbill).

And lastly in the very, very, very dark red / almost black camp we have a trio of stunners.

The hollyhock is a sweet, friendly, cottage garden favorite, but the black form tells a different story completely. No one – and by ‘no one’ I mean ‘I’ – can stand too much perkiness, and Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’ (aka ‘The Watchman’ – how sinister is that?) lends a welcome moodiness to an otherwise cheerful planting. Paul Williams suggests it alongside Rosa ‘Mutabilis’ in his utterly excellent Garden Color Book. I like it with a pale pink, single-flowered hollyhock, such as A. r. ‘Indian Spring,’ and Stipa gigantea. See what I did there? Giants in the garden again.

Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’ is dark, and it’s fabulous. I don’t really recommend planting tulips in the ground, especially if you live in an even somewhat mild climate, such as Northern California or even the South of England. They do not reliably come back and will thus leave gaps in your plantings. They are also caviar to rodents, so if a gopher has ever thought of visiting your neighborhood, please plant your tulips in pots.

I have to admit that when it comes to planting bulbs, I tend to prefer containers of single colors and varieties to pots jam-packed with a thousand different things. My elegant friend Lindsay disdainfully calls it the “confetti look,” and I’m inclined to agree. For purity of design fill three similar pots with three varieties of bulbs for a simple but striking display. Bulb planting time is now (more on that to come in subsequent posts), and I am this year filling three old, battered terracotta pots with tulips: ‘Queen of Night,’ the lily-flowered ‘Ballerina’ (orange!!) and the exuberant ‘Passionale.’

Rounding out the trifecta is one for the Hawaiians, Mediterraneans and Californians amongst us: Aeonium arboretum ‘Zwartkop’ or its smaller counterpart, A. a. ‘Jack Catlin.’ The beauty below is from the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery; the Prince of Wales has a black and white garden at Highgrove set around a sundial.

Aeonium is a succulent shrub that won’t grow happily without heat, sunshine and a fair amount of drought. If you live in Northern Europe or the colder parts of North America, plant this fella in a container. Paul Williams suggests Salvia discolor as a black companion. I can also envisage it alongside Euphorbia characias wulfennii for a vibrant, low-water combination.

Black isn’t just a botanical element in the garden; it plays a role as a sophisticated, subtle accessory color. Black containers are an excellent foil to any number of foliage colors, particularly chartreuse, aka Linden Green. As with my purist container plant selections, I tend to keep things relatively monochromatic when choosing containers. A motley crew of pots doesn’t do anyone any favors; keep colors fairly consistent and add texture with materials – fiberglass, clay, metal – and finishes – glaze, limewash and even age. This cube planter from the Chelsea Gardener in London is sleek and modern, but it would suit any planting, from herbs to roses to agaves.

In Issue 44, Remodelista wrote about matte black paint and its ability to hide a multitude of sins. Repaint tired wooden furniture or pots with a lick of matte, or flat, black paint and you’ll rejuvenate the entire scene. Glossy paint is not a good choice as it shows every bump, nick and tarnish.

Black may seem like a risk, but white garden furniture is actually the obvious ‘look-at-me’ potential eyesore in a garden; Christopher Lloyd warned against ever using it. Black furniture is as suited to any style of garden as are black plants.

Black wrought-iron benches are as classic as European public parks. Powder-coated black metal tends to look sleek and sculptural. This woven European set would look simultaneously striking and subtle in either a modern or traditional garden.

And let’s not forget why we started talking about black in the first place – baseball, that all-American summer pastime that currently has Northern California flying high. We can’t talk summer pastimes without talking barbeques, and for my money, if we’re going to talk barbeques, we should talk black. For the apartment dwellers, put this bad boy on your balcony...

For the purists, choose a charcoal grill, such as this Weber One-Touch, whose tagline informs you that apparently ‘You know you want one.’

And if you’re coming over to my house, you can worship at the altar of the true love of my husband’s life, the Weber Genesis...

Did you hear that, Pablo Sandoval? There’s a big, ol' barbeque at my house, and it won’t be getting any smaller any time soon. Who’s got it better?