Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gatsby-Inspired Blue Gardens

There is something magical about a blue garden, especially at dusk. It is then, during the fading light, when the elegant blue flowers and green foliage blend softly together, and the scene becomes a rhapsody in blue.

Sadly, blue gardens haven't been popular in the horticultural world for a while. They had a brief but spectacular moment before the Depression and then faded into (blue) obscurity for decades. That is, until earlier this year, when they made a grand and much-welcomed comeback at the Chelsea Flower Show. There was even a Blue Garden exhibit. Blue gardens suddenly became very hip with horticulture lovers everywhere. Even The Wall Street Journal did a story on them, revealing that "a mystique has evolved around blue flowers over the centuries".

The Harpers & Queen Classical garden, featured as part of the Chelsea Flower Show several years ago.  This was a spectacular formal blue garden with a blue planting scheme that included French lavender, Iris sibirica, purple sage, purple aliums and a pale blue arbour dressed in mauve wisteria. {Image via Harpers & Queen/Photograph by Jonathan Pilkington}

Blue is the most elusive, most coveted color in gardening. Many flowers that seem blue, such as lavender, lilac, and larkspur, are actually shades of purple or mauve. Gertrude Jekyll believed that blue gardens do not have to contain only blue flowers. They just have to have a sprinkling of blue to be beautiful. She recommended adding touches of white to the palette, which adds to the crisp elegance of the blues and greens. If you're unsure about introducing blue plants into your garden, consider add blue elements in other ways, such a blue ceramic pots (use oversized ones, as the Mediterraneans do), a blue potting shed, or blue gates, as the French love to do. You could even hang blue cabana-style curtains, as shown in the top image.

The hero of The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby, was well aware of the beauty of a blue garden. His lavish Long Island mansion had an extravagant blue garden in which "men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars". Here, in tribute to Baz Luhrmann's production of The Great Gatsby, which is currently being filmed in Australia, is a display of some of my favourite blue gardens.

{Top image and image directly below from Better Homes and Gardens magazine, via brabournefarm blogspot.}

A picture-perfect blue potting shed designed for an alfresco dinner. This delightful space was designed by the leading American interior designer Mary McDonald, who also decorated the surrounding garden in hues of blue. Love those striped drapes with the pink climbing roses. Here are a few more images of this elegant place. {Image via Mary McDonald's website and}

And then there is this exquisite blue garden (below), which I'd be very happy to have, rather than our complicated, half-acre property...

Designer Michael Devine's sweeter-than-sweet blue potting shed and kitchen garden (above). This image has received so much media attention I think it's single-handedly leveraged Michael's career to another level! {Image via Country Life.}

The Blue Garden at Beacon Hill, Rhode Island. Photographed in 1930. 
{Image via the July/August issue of Apollo.}

Australian landscape designer Paul Bangay's former garden at St Ambrose Farm in Woodend. Famous for being a fan of all-green gardens, Paul branched out (apologies for the pun) into blue flowers during the last few years he was here.

The Sculpture in the Garden exhibit, shown as part of the Chelsea Flower Show several years ago. {Image via the book Chelsea Gold | Photographed by Jerry Harpur}

Monet's house and garden at Giverny. Perhaps the ultimate blue garden, Monet's planting scheme popularised mass plantings of blue iris, mauve wisteria and of course the Japanese garden with its beautiful blue-hued lily ponds.

Nothing says summer like a blue deckchair in a country garden.{Image via Country Life}

Plumbago auriculata, which made a big blue splash at Chelsea this year. {Image via Alamy} I love the humble plumbago. It has the most exquisite periwinkle blue colour. I once asked Porter's Paints to match this exact blue so I could paint my living room at my former apartment in South Yarra. It was such a lovely shade; not too pale and not too dark. Thanks to the elegance of the colour, the space looked like a French salon.

Our blue picking garden.  I adore blue hydrangeas, so we have a little picking garden that only has blue hydrangeas in it. In the summer, the whole house is full of bouquets of these beautiful blousy flowers. 

The garden outside the kitchen window, which is planted with mauve hydrangeas.
  (These have just been put in so they're very young. Gardening tip: Stake young hydrangeas so they don't droop on their tender stems. It also keeps them from being soaked when the rain gushes down the slopes.)

Even our gardening library is blue! The flowers in the ginger jar came from RR. He bought this sad wilted bunch home from Safeway the other night and said: "I thought you'd like these." So sweet. They actually look really lovely in this room. I painted the Country Life book cover, and the other framed image beside it is a collage of other Penguin book covers. (You can buy these covers as postcards.)


  1. I had no idea blue was "in". Must have absorbed that subliminally from somewhere! We have finally just planted our garden around our freshly renovated house and as it is an Adelaide Bluestone (different to Melbourne Bluestone), I decided to do lots of blues and whites in the garden along with all the greenery. I like the harmony it will produce (as all the plants are babies at the moment). I've planted lots of Ecchium, which are quite sculptural looking and grow to monster sizes, and lots of massed blue salvias.
    Love your blue Country Life painting and your beautiful hydrangeas as well.

  2. Your home sounds lovely Heide. I'm very envious! My partner and I LOVE the old bluestone houses in Adelaide (where he is from). Every time we go to Adelaide I want to bring one back with us. The Ecchium sounds interesting - I must look that up - and I love salvias. Unfortunately, our cool climate and high rainfall means a lot of flowers don't grow well here (apart from the hydrangeas, which grow like weeds) and of course the magnolias, rhodies and peonies. I'm pleased to see that old-fashioned cottage gardens are making a comeback, as are Arts and Crafts gardens (which feature informal planting schemes inside formal borders, such as box hedge). Your garden sounds beautiful. Do let me know how it progresses. Janelle

  3. You must have a gardening climate more like Stirling in the Adelaide Hills. My parents live there, and grow masses of Rhododendrons, camellias and blue hydrangeas. Here on the plains, our Hydrangeas are pink (unless you grow the white varieties, such as the oak leaf Snow Queen which I've also put in) - something to do with Acid v's alkaline soil types.
    I am trying to do something different in my garden and create more of an old style gardeners garden (with some design to it though!)- there are so many gardens now that are strict rows of hedged things. Inspired by Paul Bangay's beautiful gardens, but definitely not with his finesse! It remains to be seen if I've created a mess or a more refined mess! That's the challenge of gardening - visualising how it will look once things have grown to their full size.

  4. Yes, we inherited lines and lines and LINES of box hedges from the previous owner! And yes, our climate is very much like Stirling's. Have you read the new book out on Gertrude Jeyll's style of gardening? She believed in old-style gardens too. According her her Wikipedia entry, she was a "planter" rather than a designer, and took a painterly approach to planting. (Her Wikipedia entry gives more detail.) Rosemery Verey defined herself as being more of a plantswoman than a designer too. So lovely to chat to another gardener...

  5. I haven't seen that book - what is the title? I'm definitely doing a more painterly approach, trying to segue foliage and colour harmoniously (I hope). To avoid a really old style garden (the bitty ones, with one type of rose next to one type of something else) I'm planting massed groupings of plants (ie three or 5 of things). I used a beautiful book "Rural Australian Gardens" for inspiration (the garden "Possumwood" was particularly interesting to me with a similar climate to ours), and spent hours googling plants. You are lucky Janelle to have at least got box hedges to work with - we inherited a lot of Oleanders, and other poisonous things! And all the good things were killed by the builders while we were still in Melbourne renovating from a distance!


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