Plant red!

Working with the colour red in a planting scheme is the most challenging to me. In a line-up of eye-catching plants, I find the reds are doing more than catching the eye. They’re doing a full-on fandango. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of red plants sporting flowers, stems and/or leaves that I adore. (You might remember the love letter I wrote about taking a red Anthurium across Canada several times.) But now “Plant Red” is an official initiative in Canada.

You see our House of Commons recently passed a declaration supporting the Garden Council’s proclamation that 2022 is Canada’s Year of the Garden. Part of this nation-wide celebration includes encouraging gardeners to “Plant Red” in honour of frontline workers and those who have lost their lives during the pandemic. It’s a wonderful idea. But my first thought was that it ain’t going to be easy. So I took a deep dive into my photo archives to get inspired. After going on loads of gardening tours and exploring all kinds of botanical gardens, I figured I must have shot some interesting red plant combos. As it turns out, I found all kinds of instances where gardeners took red and ran with it. Here are 15 ways to add the colour red for drama, depth or detail to a garden, big or small.

Red Hot Pokers make a statement at Sissinghurst

More is definitely more

Let’s start with what one of the most renowned gardeners did: Vita Sackville West’s mass planting of Kniphofia (above) at Sissinghurst. I always see this plant as a solo accent or a couple of them in a small group, poking up above surrounding plants like a strident exclamation point. But Sackville West filled a huge bed with them and added swaths of equally tall, flame coloured flowering plants and anchored the whole thing with cannas with leaves edged in deep burgundy. If you’ve got the room, just go for it!

Speaking of Cannas, they can look spectacular in a large grouping, too. Shown below are Toucan canna lilies in Rose (foreground) and Scarlet (background).

A large grouping of cannas planted in a deep border.

And if you’re really into some rule breaking, why not try using Caladiums as a ground cover? I saw this bed (below) at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario.

Caladium plants

No-fail classics: Poppies and roses

Of course, when you think of red flowers you immediately think of poppies. They’re a powerful symbol honouring the fallen. Massed in their own bed, they are a fabulous sight (below left). I don’t often see poppies mixed with other plants, truth be told. Which is why the grouping shown below right caught my eye. Here, poppies are mixed with orange dahlias and deep purple irises and alliums. It’s an eye-searing combo and it works beautifully.

Red roses are another classic choice. What’s totally unexpected in this garden bed (below) and, therefore, wonderfully striking, is that the roses were tucked in amongst shapely stones in a tiered rock garden. I don’t think I’d ever seen roses as the main floral focal point of a rock garden but they worked here in this private garden in north Toronto. The roses were paired with Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum), adding contrast with their bright green fleshy leaves edged in red.

Bright green succulents and red roses contrast in a rock garden.
Succulents nestled in rocks next to vibrant roses? Why not if the plants are OK with the available soil and light. You’ll get an unusual play of colour and texture.

Container your enthusiasm

Of course, red flowers are often used as the star of container plantings and for good reasons:

  1. Red flowers easily fill the role of “thriller” in the classic “thriller + filler + spiller” container recipe
  2. If you want minimalism, bright red blooms alone can deliver both simplicity and drama all on their own. Begonias and geraniums are popular go-tos in this case.

Asking red flowers to play a supporting role rather than as the main act can be more challenging but when it works, it’s sublime. This row of containers (below) has cascading red Dragonwing Begonias spilling over a frothing mix of green and deep purple-leaved plants and topped with pale grasses and Gaura (or what I like to call Butterflies On A Stick).

An autumn container planting

I love a good trailing begonia. I snap some up every spring to plant up in containers placed somewhere close to our outdoor chairs so they can be appreciated over a glass of wine. Begonias can easily take over a container planting but the combination shown below, created by a gardener featured on a Toronto garden tour several years ago, has a great variety of leaf shapes and flowers without anything shouting out at you.

I challenged myself one year to create a container planting featuring all red flowers, including bright red nasturtiums. It was a disaster but a disaster just wonky enough to enjoy all summer. You’ll find the recipe for this planting (below) in a previous post I wrote called A Fiery Red Container Recipe Full of Surprises. I encourage you to be inspired by the recipe but do not, under any circumstances, follow the original recipe.

When it shouldn’t work but it does any way

Maybe you’ve heard an expert gardener pointing out a planting scheme and derisively describing it as “polka-dotty”–a mish mosh of look-at-me! plants that have your eyes bouncing around until you have to look away. But isn’t gardening really all about breaking rules and simply having fun? The bed below graced the front garden of our City Hall in Fernie, B.C. a few summers ago. I love how the whole thing just dances with colours and shapes. And the reds! There are petunias, dwarf snapdragons and dahlias. But what I love best about this planting are the great big cabbages with their velvety blue-green leaves. And red-stemmed kale! As you walked past this garden bed, those ruby-red stems flickered brightly.

When red is not about the flower

Plants with bright red stems or leaves make terrific options when you want rich colour in a more subtle way. Red Twig Dogwood can set a garden on fire, especially in the last warm rays of a setting sun in autumn. In fact, when it comes to ornamental grasses (Bloodgrass is a classic) and trees with red leaves (I love Smokebush and Japanese maples), I love to situate them so that they are smack in the middle of a setting sun. Begonias that are grown more for their ornamental leaves than their flowers can add a wonderful touch of red, too. ‘Pegasus’ or ‘Gryphon’ surprise with leaves that are silvery on top and velvety red underneath. Rex Begonias can have wildly patterned leaves streaked with blood red.

What it’s really all about

Whether you plant something red to make a statement, as a symbol or simply because you like the colour, whether you choose annuals or perennials, whether you do up a small container or renovate an entire bed with your new choices, I think what really matters is that it works for you. And I’m beginning to realize that there are as many wonderful ways to “plant red” as there are gardens and gardeners.

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