The Self-Taught Gardener: Person of color

A visit to the home of Richard Hartlage in Seattle brought home for our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala the importance of color.

I suppose describing someone as having a colorful personality is not always a compliment, but when I think of my friend Richard Hartlage, it is meant as the highest of accolades. I cannot think of another way of capturing who he is. Richard, a landscape designer in Seattle, is perhaps the most colorful (and opinionated) gardener I know, and my recent stay at his house near the Seattle Arboretum brought home to me the importance of color.

Known for designing gardens across the country, including the landscape at Seattle’s Chihuly Garden and Glass, Richard is clearly not scared of color. And in a setting like Seattle, or anywhere this season where the winter has gone on for what appears to be an eternity, his love of color might be something for which we all hunger. When I arrived in Seattle and pulled down his street, it was pretty clear which house was his – an old Craftsman painted the boldest red imaginable, set against the Seattle sun, or lack thereof. This was one of the first moments on the trip when I realized why color is powerful – it takes us out of our present situation and punctuates our days and our lives, something that was evident in another way just one moment later as Richard greeted me, with his orange and blue striped socks peeking out from under the legs of his khakis.

Blue can also be countered by pink, as is the case in this combination of squill and corydalis.
There is room for the subtle as well, as is apparent in the soft blue petals of this anemone.

Color has the ability to energize us and to bring to life the things around us. From the simple anemones peeking up in his front yard to the stoplight yellow daffodils pushing forth from a serpentined boxwood hedge (alongside some pretty pink corydalis, in case you need a reminder to put on your sunglasses in cloudy Seattle), Richard was hard at work adding color to a drab spring day. The daffodils, like Richard, seemed to pop up with the same energy that Richard exhibits as he nods his head when sharing one of his endless opinions about gardening and gardens (and more delightfully, gardeners). I have always had a fondness for garden writers, like Eleanor Perenyi and Henry Mitchell, who had strong opinions, and Richard would fit well into that mix. In a garden, a color is either right or wrong (although I half suspect the color Richard would find wrong might be white – unless perhaps it is countered by ‘Queen of Night’ tulips). But I may be wrong, for Richard’s plant palette seems strong and bold, yet has room for a refinement as well. The blue of a wood anemone in his garden is demure – its planting partner is not.

This bulbicodium type of daffodil, with its butter yellow tones, might seem too delicate for Richard’s garden, but its hoopskirt-like perianth gives it a boldness that allows it to fit in.
If nothing were in bloom in Richard’s back yard, these glass balls floating in a trough would work in lieu of flowers

A weekend in his house was a trip to Oz or anything else shot in Technicolor – the throw pillows might as well have been Dutch hybrid tulips or dinnerplate dahlias and were as colorful as the potted amaryllis exploding forth on a bench nearby. My palette could not be more different from Richard’s. I tend towards the subdued, with an occasional bit of sunny orange, but over the weekend I found myself longing to challenge the defaults I had set for myself. I wanted to plant a bold pink hellebore or a crimson tulip so that others might describe me as colorful, too.

Of course, even the mugs in the cupboard were Pantone. I chose blue.
A side table in the house is as colorful as Richard’s garden.
The amaryllises in the living room were hardly demure, even though most of the reds had already passed by.

The weekend left me wondering if the old adage “we are what we eat,” really was meant to be “we are what we garden.” And I hope that someday I, too, can be described as colorful — so perhaps I’d better rethink my garden. And isn’t that what spring is for?

I felt proud that I could add some color to Richard’s house. My Warholian edition of Joan Didion’s ‘Play It As It Lays’ almost seemed at home on my nightstand.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.