Great landscaping color doesn't just happen accidentally. It comes with a thorough knowledge of the tools you'll be using (flowers, foliage and hardscaping elements), and it requires careful planning. As our son's driver's ed teacher once told his carful of teenagers, "You gotta see the big picture." As we head into another growing-season chance for you to help your landscape shine, let's work, step by step, to develop a plan for color beds.
What are your favorite colors? There's little point in adding red to your garden if your favorite color is blue. Be sure your colors are harmonious with the nonliving things that surround them, such as walls, walks and patios, then go with the shades that most cheer and inspire you.
Just like the insides of our houses, our landscapes are made up of "rooms." At a minimum, you can compare the front yard to your living room, your back yard to the den and the work or storage area to your garage. (Good luck with that one!) If your lot is large enough to allow it, you'll be able to create additional rooms via creative use of fences, berms, retaining walls and hedges.
The point of all that is that each of these rooms can have its own seasonal color scheme. What you use in your front yard absolutely does not have to mesh with what you plant in the back -- that is, unless they're concurrently visible from any one place.
Keep breaking it down into manageable modules. You'll want to change out your color plantings in any given spot at least two times per season, one for the cool months of November through mid-April, and the other for the warm weather from late April through October. So, that all adds up to the opportunity to try a lot of fun plants, since you'll have two color schemes per room, and two or three rooms (or more) in your landscape.
Once you've determined the colors you want to use, make a list of the very best plants to provide them. Remember that flowering trees and shrubs typically bloom one or two times per year, and that they flower for two or three weeks at a time. Fall color lasts about that long, too. Point being, those are rather fleeting sources of landscaping color. Sure, you need to consider and include them, but you probably don't want to base your entire garden design on them alone.
Perennials are somewhat in that same boat. Almost all perennial species will bloom at the same time this year that they flowered last year, and that bloom time for all but a handful will last two or three weeks. If you're going to use perennials effectively, you'll want to nestle them among other flowering plants of compatible shades and sequential bloom times. Good perennial gardens require very careful planning, and they'll also need a sequence of 10 or 20 types of plants to provide pockets of color through the season.
Annual flowers and foliage provide the biggest show for the bucks, and they're the easiest way for a newcomer to succeed with landscaping color. Your biggest responsibility with them will come in choosing types that can handle Texas weather and soils, and that's where your homework pays off. Base your plantings on proven types. If in doubt, get help from a Texas Certified Nursery Professional. If you want to experiment, do so carefully and away from prime visual spots.
Small beds may only need one or two types of plants for the best look. If you have larger, more spreading beds, you may choose to use sweeps of like plants in the foregrounds and backgrounds. Still, simple is always in style, so don't feel like you need to have big assortments of types.
We used to plant primarily in monochromatic beds. That was 15 or 20 years ago, and even if we used two or three types of plants in the bed, they were all of the same basic color. Now, however, you'll see rich blends of similar shades. Growers and retailers have created special mixes of colors, knowing that they'll combine for a great overall show. Tulips planted with pansies, all in shades of yellows, oranges and whites, or blues, soft yellows and whites -- all kinds of great choices. You'll have the same opportunity as you create your summer beds from annuals you find in local retail centers. You'll be able to blend shades of purple, or you'll have fun mixing all types of reds or pastels.
Patio pots and hanging baskets let you put accent marks on your efforts. Any plant is elevated to a position of prominence when it's grown in a pot. Use containers near your entries, as accents on the patio and at any other place where you want to draw attention. If you're limited on space, they're a great way to create an effective color design, and do so completely above ground.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.