The Gaudy Garden

– Posted in: Garden Design

It\'s big, it\'s ruffled, it\'s gaudy; it\'s \'Far West\' gladiolus.A while back, I read that Sarah Raven, the author of one of my favorite gardening reads, The Bold and Brilliant Garden, originally wanted to call her book The Gaudy Garden. If I remember correctly, someone talked her out of it, using the reasoning that no one would buy a book with that title. Well, I know that she’d have sold at least one copy, because I would have bought it.

Since then, I’ve often contemplated the concept of a gaudy garden, and I’ve tried to pitch the idea of an article on the subject to several magazines. There’s been no interest, so maybe I am alone in loving the idea. But somehow, I’m guessing that there might be at least a few others of you who would find the topic as intriguing as I do.

Tulips, such as the color-changing \'Antoinette\', are a must-have for gaudy spring gardens.Maybe the problem is how you interpret the word “gaudy.” It makes me think of things that are brightly colored, exuberant, lively, extravagant, and yes, maybe a little over-the-top, in a fun way. But my spell checker gives me a number of other synonyms with negative connotations: garish, loud, tasteless, tawdry, decorated to an unpleasant degree. So fine, one person’s cheerful is another person’s kitschy.

I didn’t set out to create a gaudy garden; I imagine most people don’t. It’s one of those things that kind of creeps up on you: one dinner-plate dahlia here, one outrageously orange zinnia there, and before you know it, yep, you’ve got a gaudy garden. If you suspect your own garden might be heading that way, here are some warning signs to watch for.

Gorgeous globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) is the essence of gaudiness.Shocking Colors. The most obvious symptom of a gaudy garden has to be retina-searing colors: vivid reds, intense oranges, vivacious yellows, and vibrant magentas. If you tend to stick with all soft colors – delicate pastels in flowers and soothing greens, blues, and grays in foliage – then no fears of gaudiness for you. If you occasionally toss in a bit of bright yellow or red for contrast, then you’re probably still safe. But if you find yourself gravitating toward quantities of Knock Out roses (Rosa ‘Radrazz’), ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnias, and ‘Margarita’ sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas) – well, my friend, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re on your way toward creating a gaudy garden.

The gigantic flower heads of hills-of-snow hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) definitely fit into a gaudy garden.What about white? For many, the concept of a white garden has become the ultimate symbol of tastefulness and restraint. But honestly, have you tried looking at a lot of white and bright silver on a sunny day? It’s enough to give anyone a headache. And the purer the white, the more blinding it is. If you keep your whites where they get some shade, then you’re quite safely in tasteful territory. But if you insist on using generous clumps of hills-of-snow hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), or other bright whites in your full-sun spaces, then you might be a gaudy gardener.

Oh, gosh, do people *really* put pink and yellow together? They do if they\'re gaudy!

And if you delight not just in planting single bright colors, but in combining them, then truly, there is no hope for you. Red or hot pink with yellow, orange with purple, magenta with chartreuse: trust me, they’re guaranteed to get a reaction from visitors, and you’d better be prepared that it’s not always going to be positive. (But who cares what they think, anyway?)

Variegated foliage *and* bright pink flowers? \'Goldmine\' phlox is truly a gift for gaudy gardeners.Unnatural Delights. Gaudy gardeners tend to gravitate toward anything that’s out of the ordinary. Foliage that is vividly striped, splashed, or spotted with a contrasting color? Check. Startlingly oversized leaves or flowers? You bet. Ridiculously frilled, flounced, or doubled blooms? Oh my, yes. Stems that are curled or contorted into unnatural shapes? Sure thing. It definitely takes a good dose of self-confidence to celebrate freakishness in the garden. I’m not saying you have to like these oddities, just that you find them fascinating, even if it’s just in an “oh my gosh, that’s so horrible I can’t take my eyes off of it” way.

If you\'re a fan of \'Pink Double Delight\' and \'Coconut Lime\' echinaceas, you\'re probably a gaudy gardener!

Yeah, I\'m gaudy, and I\'ll crow about it!Exterior Decorating. Oh, yeah, you know what I’m talking about, and it’s not the occasional little bunny ornament or mosaic stepping stone: it’s got to be big, or bright, or bizarre (with bonus points if it’s all three). Striped or spotted furniture. Multiple gazing balls in a rainbow of colors, not just sitting sedately on pedestals but also dangling from branches or floating in water. Quirky birdhouses that no self-respecting bird would ever actually live in. Silly signs. Fluttering flags. Even the whole-house treatment, with some outrageous paint color that was never meant to be sold by the whole gallon, for goodness sake. It’s not about creating focal points; it’s about creating an experience, and making a statement.

So, what do you think, my fellow garden bloggers – are you a gaudy gardener? Or do you prefer the give-me-peace-in-my-garden-I have-enough-drama-in-my-life approach?

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Nancy J. Ondra

Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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