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We’ve Got the Blues

Anchusa azurea flowers
Anchusa azurea by name tells of its blue color. The strain ‘Dropmore’ was selected in 1905 and it still available today.

Deep blue, azure blue, sky blue, and sapphire blue – annuals and perennials in shades of blue are artfully arranged to accent both soft and bold colored plant groupings.  All are on display in the King’s Garden, one of just a few examples of landscape architect Marian Coffin’s work that remains from her successful career that peaked between 1918 and 1930.

She was commissioned to redesign the walled garden behind the summer home of Stephen and Sarah Pell at Fort Ticonderoga in 1920, using her expertise gained from formal training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and trips to Europe to study classical and “natural” garden designs.  Coffin was introduced to Gertrude Jekyll, probably the most influential English landscape architect of the period, while touring gardens abroad.  Jekyll appreciated the beauty of both natural and formal styles, used a painterly approach to garden design, and carefully used color to evoke a desired feeling in the landscape -theories that influenced the style Marian Coffin adopted in her own designs.

Clear blue Salvia Azurea flowers
Clear blue Salvia azurea (pitcher sage) compliments a soft yellow dahlia

Colour in the Flower Garden (1908) was Jekyll’s most famous book, widely read by professional and amateur gardeners.   The use of blue and yellow flowers to create a sense of light is a recurrent theme in her planting schemes and she describes, “The blues will be more telling – more purely blue – by the juxtaposition of rightly placed complimentary color”.

Coffin incorporated this idea into the long rectangular beds and borders that separate the cool-hued east end of the King’s Garden with the fiery palette of the west end.  Lemon-yellow giant marigolds are paired with blue ageratum, pale yellow hollyhocks with steely-blue globe thistle, pure blue bachelor buttons matched with creamy yellow, nodding columbine, and sky-blue pitcher sage alongside light yellow marigolds.  These beds also include the blue flowers of anchusa, blue hybrid columbine, monkshood, lupine, mealycup sage and delphinium.  Considering the soft red brick walls in the background of the plantings as a third color in the scheme, Coffin successfully used muted shades of the three primary colors in perfect combination.

Delphinium bellamosum flowers
Delphinium bellamosum, a Coffin selection for the King’s Garden

Blue in its deepest tones is a striking contrast with vivid reds and oranges.  Again following Jekyll’s theories, Coffin incorporated “larkspur blue” delphinium –  a rich, deep blue -amidst the vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows of beebalm, tiger lilies, and bold zinnias.  Warm colors are a real attention getter and can be overwhelming if not used judiciously.  The addition of blue accents gives the eye a place to rest in what could otherwise be a busy scheme.  Warm colors are more effective when balanced with blues and greens nearby or behind them.  It’s OK to have the blues!

Bachelor buttons, red poppies, and yellow bearded iris flowers
Bachelor buttons allow the eye to rest among vivid red poppies and yellow bearded iris

This is the perfect time of year to evaluate your garden beds and begin to make plans for the next growing season.  What color combinations work in your garden and which ones do not?  Experiment with the addition of blue accents in shades that harmonize with the existing scheme.  Take inspiration from Gertrude Jekyll by reading her book on use of color at Internet Archive –  Though written over 100 years ago, her words are timeless.  “The duty we owe to our gardens and to our own bettering in our gardens is so to use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures…”