Neil Sperry: Play up purple for a cool, classy look

Posted Friday, May. 02, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Life is an evolutionary process. When I was a teen, the only color I wanted in my gardens was red. Red day lilies, red zinnias, red petunias — red. Really red. I asked Mom and Dad to buy us a red car, but they were much older, and that never did happen.

I’m a lot older now, too, and I’ve come to appreciate another color entirely. One that plays well in Fort Worth (Thank you, TCU.), and one that would play well for gardeners if they can only acquire the taste.

It’s purple, and I’ve called you here today to share with you all the good things I know about my new favorite shade. (That’s a sentence I never would have dreamed about saying several decades ago.)

Why Purple Rocks …

• Purple plays well with other colors. Reds often combat one another. I’ve seen it happen with the highly popular Dynamite and Red Rocket crape myrtles when they’ve been planted in front of red brick or alongside other colors of crape myrtles. Pinks and lavenders have a hard time telling when one starts and the other begins. And can you imagine mixing lavenders with oranges? Oh, I’m suddenly not feeling too well.

Purples, by comparison, combine well with almost all other colors. You’ll see it most dramatically in six or eight weeks, when crape myrtles hit their peak bloom. Purple types like Catawba and Twilight can be planted alongside all other typical crape myrtle shades.

• Purple is visually cooling. Reds, oranges, bright yellows and hot pinks are “warm” colors to the eye. They’re variations of the color of sunlight, hence the perception of heat. If you use them in your summertime plantings, they’ll be pretty, but they certainly won’t help you feel better about living in this very warm part of America.

Purples, greens, blues and lavenders, by comparison are “cool” colors. They’re the colors assigned to snow and ice, and we perceive them as chilling. That’s a great mind-set in mid-July, when the thermometer is kicking past 100 by the middle of the morning each day. We can use just about any type of cooling, whether real or imagined.

• Purple makes small gardens appear larger. It’s another visual effect. Those warm colors – the reds, yellows and oranges, are much more visible from a distance. We use them when we want people to see color beds that we’ve planted, even from several hundreds of feet. But when we want a small area (zero lot line home landscape) to appear larger, we reach for the cool colors: purple, dark blue and green. Your eye will see them as being more distant.

• Purple sets your landscape apart. After all, it’s one of our least common colors in the plant kingdom. It’s no big challenge to do a landscape in reds or yellows, so purple gardens really stand out as being something quite special. You can plant decorative pots with shades of purple and use them as subtle highlights to entries and patios. You can use purple in sweeps around your walks or pool without drawing attention away from your landscape’s prime focal points.

• Purple is available in both flowers and foliage. That allows you to use a foliage plant as the backdrop for one of your plantings, and a flowering plant of a compatible shade of purple in the foreground. There are ample examples, with the duo of purple fountaingrass and purple pentas being a lovely one.

Best of the Purple Annuals

• Purple ornamental sweet potatoes. The first one was “Blackie,” but there are others in the market today. These are grown only for their foliage, and they’re great in low bed borders and pots.

• Purple heart. This can be lumped in with annual color plants, but it’s really perennial. It dies to the ground every winter then comes back the next spring. It’s a cousin to purple Wandering Jew.

• Purple fountaingrass. Most of our ornamental grasses are perennials, but this one needs to be used as an annual in North Texas gardens. Its blades and even its plumes have a lovely maroon-purple hue.

• Hyacinth bean. Its leaves, flowers and fruit (pods) are all maroonish-purple. It loves the heat, but it really starts to star once it turns cool in mid-September.

• Purple cabbage and kale. For the winter, there’s no better source of purple foliage. They’re great planted behind pansies.

• Pansies. Yep. There are purple pansies as well. They’re short, dark and handsome, great in floral borders and pots.

• Angelonia. You didn’t see this plant until the past 15 or 20 years, and now it’s a summertime mainstay. Occasionally referred to as “summer snapdragons,” its flowers are borne in prominent spikes.

• Sweet alyssum. Lowest of the low-growing annual border flowers, alyssum blooms in late winter and spring. In a protected spot, you can even plant it in fall and enjoy it until the heat of late spring.

• Fanflower. From Australia, this trailing purple flower caught Texas by storm starting 25 or 30 years ago. It trails in bed borders, and it’s great in hanging baskets and as the “spiller” for large patio pots.

• Purple gomphrena. This one is heatproof. It’s an everlasting flower (one that can be dried), and it grows to be 18 to 24 inches tall. The variety Buddy is a dwarf purple, although it’s not as relaxed looking in the garden as the old standard.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: www.neilsperry.com.

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