Posted on 14 Comments

The Softer Side of Yellow

Arc borders at Hayefield

Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra

Of all the color combinations in my garden, yellow with green is one of my favorites. Built around a long row of golden elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’), the curved borders that evolved along my driveway turned out to be a great place indulge in all sorts of yellow flowers and foliage. It wasn’t until months later, when I took the picture at the top of this post, that I realized the excellent color echo of the road sign in the background. The strong yellow of the ‘Zagreb’ coreopsis in the foreground is almost a perfect match, though I think rudbeckias would be even better.

As much as I hate to admit it, there is such a thing as too much yellow, as you can see below.

Foundation planting at Hayefield June 06

That was my attempt at creating a garden based on all-yellow and yellow-variegated foliage, with only a little green. After just a few weeks, I could see it wasn’t working and started tucking in some burgundy. Finally, I moved out about a third of the yellows and added more purple, orange, and red; it looked much better, but then it was hardly a yellow garden. I find the first photo much more pleasing; even though there’s much more green than yellow, the two seem to balance out.

Creating individual yellow-based combinations has proven much easier than all-yellow borders. Below is one of my favorite pairings in a morning-sun-and-afternoon-shade spot: golden-leaved raspberry (Rubus idaeus ‘Aureus’) with leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum [Ligularia tussilaginea] ‘Aureomaculatum’).

Farfugium japonicum 'Aureomaculatum' with Rubus idaeus 'Aureus'

And in a full-sun spot, the greenish centers and clear-yellow petals of ‘Prairie Sun’ rudbeckia looked very pretty with the chartreusey blooms of dill and hare’s ear (Bupleurum rotundifolium), shown below.

Rudbeckia 'Prairie Sun' with Bupleurum rotundifolium and Anethum graveolens

I have mixed feelings about some other “yellow-and-” experiments. Below shows one trial combination of yellow and silver-blue foliage. The centerpiece is ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum), next to a small clump of ‘Yellow Form’ flowering maple (Abutilon pictum). To the right of the comfrey is Melianthus major; to the left of it is ‘Silver Falls’ ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea); and above it is ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum).

Symphytum x uplandicum 'Axminster Gold' with Melianthus major,  Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues', Heuchera 'Lime Rickey', Dichondra argentea 'Silver Falls', and Abutilon 'Yellow Form'

Sometimes I look at that combination and really like it; at other times (and when I saw it in full sun), it was just too washy. (Plus, the switch grass ended up being far too tall, making it way out of proportion to its companions.) I have the same mixed feelings about this vignette from the same part of that border, taken from a slightly different angle: in between the variegated comfrey and the silver ponyfoot is yellow-green ‘Lime Rickey’ heuchera.

Dichondra argentea 'Silver Falls' with Heuchera 'Lime Rickey' and Symphytum x uplandicum 'Axminster Gold'

I think the forms are interesting, but I just don’t know about the colors. And yet, I kept trying. Below is silvery ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia with ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre).

Artemisia 'Powis Castle' with Sedum rupestre 'Angelina'

And here is Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) with powder blue ‘Lacinato’ kale. At some level, I must like the effect, but when I try to reason it out, I’m at a loss.

Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger' (Tiger Eyes) and Kale 'Nero di Toscana' ('Lacinato')

Increasing the intensity of the blue definitely helps. Below are blue grape hyacinths (Muscari) with ‘Gold Mound’ spirea and red peony shoots.

Paeonia shoots with Muscari and Spiraea 'Gold Mound'

And next, ‘Ultramarine’ forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvestris) with the same golden spirea. These I definitely like!

Myosotis 'Ultramarine' with Spiraea japonica 'Gold Mound'

Below left is another blue-and-yellow beauty: Clematis integrifolia rising out of a pool of golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’).

Clematis integrifolia and Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea '

On a similar theme, here’s variegated sweet iris (Iris pallida ‘Variegata’) with ‘Sunshine’ dogwood (Cornus sericea subsp. occidentalis).

Iris pallida 'Variegata' with Cornus sericea 'Sunshine'

Of course, I haven’t been able to resist creating some higher-contrast yellow pairings, as well. More on that in Not-So-Mellow Yellow.

Posted on 14 Comments

14 thoughts on “The Softer Side of Yellow

  1. The road sign is a great touch–talk about borrowed scenery! Yellow with bright green is wonderful, especially when there are little splashes of bright blue (as in your examples above) or wine red (except for the peony shoots, I, ahem, don’t see any here for some reason…) to set it off. The golden-leaved raspberry with the leopard plant is inspired. Can’t wait to see the next installment!

    Thanks, Elly! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see anything yellow right about now? Eranthis, daffodils, forsythia – anything!

  2. Anything yellow *would* be a bonus right now, as I look out the window to see big flakes of snow fluttering past. I love your brights! Bright “any color” is my favorite in the garden. I like the sign. :)

    Oh, you too with the snow? When will it ever end? Arrrrrgh. Er…thanks for visiting, Nancy!

  3. Nan, you have such a way with those color combos, no wonder you chose that for the theme of the designer’s workshops, but February is coming to an end and so…..what’s next? I should have made more posts about color, it has been so much fun reading about everyone’s choices. I have started a yellow and white area, but already planted there are blue baptisias, not easily moved. I also have a large ‘Aurea’ elderberry, but it seems to be more green than yours. It gets quite a bit of sun, does that help or hurt the yellow coloring? Just wanted to mention the pairing of the peony shoots with the grape hyacinths, what doesn’t look great next to that blue?

    Frances at Faire Garden

    I’ll tell you this much, Frances: March’s topic is one I don’t have much experience with, so I’m hoping to spend a lot more time reading everyone else’s posts. If you want to write about color later on, we can always go back and add those posts to the wrap-up list (it’s a biggie this month!).

    The golden elderberry definitely has its best golden color here from spring into midsummer. After that, those in sun tend to bleach out a bit (or even scorch if their soil dries out), while those in shade do often turn somewhat greenish.

  4. I’m really gotten to like pure yellow. I agree with you that it does look better with a more saturated blue & that it is a great accent for green. Is that Dallas Blue switchgrass really as blue as it appears in the photo?

    Yes, I’d say that ‘Dallas Blues’ really is that blue, and it stays that way through most of the growing season. It’s really a beauty!

  5. Nancy, your gardens are just amazing. I love your taste in combinations!

    My daughter is in school in Easton, can you recommend a good nursery in that area? It would make spring visits extra fun :-)

    Thanks, Melanie! I’m not very familiar with the area right around Easton, but I think Point Phillip Perennials isn’t too far from there, and I know that they have great perennials and woody plants, plus extensive display gardens. Their site is at According to PlantSource, a nursery finder for our region, there are quite a few others in Northampton County; check this page:

    If you’re up for a bit more traveling, I highly recommend a visit to Ott’s Exotic Plants in Schwenksville, PA. I wrote about its fall spectacle in this post at Gardening Gone Wild. If you went in the spring, you’d get the pastel effect!

  6. What an amazing tour. I use Bluebeard as a lime green for my gardens. Now I have more choices. Thank you for the nice lessons today in yellow, blues, and greens as contrasting colors. I’m just rebuilding gardens and excited about using some of these ideas. What a treat.

    Hi Anna! I too love both Sunshine Blue and ‘Worcester Gold’ bluebeard, with their combinations of blue and gold on one plant. ‘Sweet Kate’ tradescantia is another one, with even more intense flowers. There are just so many great plants, and so little time!

  7. Yellows aren’t my favorite in the garden, but you make an excellent case mixed with the greens. I do however love the silvery ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia with ‘Angelina’ sedum. Those colors look great together.

    I’m learning that the strong yellows really do show best paired with a lot of green, in gardens as well as in tractors, and outside my fenced area, green is certainly abundant. I’m intrigued that you too like the ‘Powis Castle’ with ‘Angelina’. I think the combination wouldn’t work nearly as well if ‘Angelina’ showed the slightly orange-yellow coloration she tends to get in strong sun; in some shade, as she is here tucked under the artemisia, she’s a much softer greenish yellow.

  8. You’re a very good teacher Nan, and I appreciate seeing these yellow and green combos. I’ll certainly plant some grape hyacinths beside the peony bushes. What a nice idea (and why haven’t I thought of that?). I love purples and blues with those chartreusey shades and the deeper greens.
    We sure are ready for some color…any color!! :)

    Hi Kerri! Yes, that combination of the grape hyacinths with the peony shoots is so simple and yet so striking. I’ll have to remember to try that one myself!

  9. I have enjoyed your color series. You have a wonderful knack for color combinations. I love the first picture!

    Thanks, Robin! Writing about color has been great fun for me, and I’m glad you’ve found it of interest. I should have chosen a longer month for the topic!

  10. Nice combos, Nan! I too have found combining silvers and yellows a particular challenge. But you’ve hit upon the solution here-the bluer the better as far as the silvers go.

    However, that sort of begs the question as to whether chartreuse is the new neutral for gardeners, a notion I thought you mentioned in an earlier post here or at GGW. I’m thinking burgundy/black is the new neutral for foliage aficionados. Those hues truly go with everything. And, I think, they strengthen their companions. Silvers all too often seem to weaken the colors they keep company with, as they do to some of those yellows.

    On another topic…I love those gold elderberries(and the burgundy ones, the variegated ones, etc) but mine are often plagued by borers. I’m thinking of yanking them and planting those Rhus ‘Tiger Eyes’ instead. As some of your photos remind me, they are stunning.–Steve

    Yes, Steve! You’ve said what I hadn’t reasoned out, about silvers weakening companion colors. Sometimes, that’s not a bad thing. But it’s so easy to make things *too* soft that a bit of depth from dark foliage is often a more pleasing option.

    I too have had some trouble getting elderberries established because of borers. After three years or so, they can tolerate the damage. But when they have only one or two stems, losing one is a disaster!

  11. The Equipment Manager (aka husband) at my house is right there with you concerning the John Deere! I never thought to plant a garden to compliment his tractor! Some great ideas here! Silver and gold can work! I love yellow and gold as they are 50 mile per hour plants! That is, you can spot them when you are driving that fast!

    I suppose my yellow border is officially a 35-mph garden because of the S-curve indicated by the sign, but in reality, you’re right: It is more of a 50-mph garden. It certainly does catch the eye at any speed. Apparently some of my neighbors have started using it as a landmark when giving directions.

  12. I’ve nothing interesting to add here, just that your plants and combos have given me some neat ideas. I’m on the lookout for spiraea, dogwood, and elderberry this spring at the local nurseries–golds and variegates. Actually getting quite excited about having more shrubs for lots of reasons, and largely because it means less perennials to plant and more sculpture / vertical-ness. Thanks, Nan.

    Hey, thanks for visiting, Benjamin! With the amount of space you have to fill, yes, shrubs will be your friends. And so will big annuals, in the short run.

  13. I cannot find a nursery that sells axminster gold russian comfrey. Do you know of any? (Cistus nursery in Oregon doesn’t have any at this time) Thanks Merry

    Hi Merry! It appears the the Variegated Foliage Nursery currently has it. It’s listed at You may want to give them a call and check the availability. It’s pricey but worth every penny, I think. Good luck!

  14. Hello Nancy,
    found your site when I was searching for some information about Symphytum “Axminster Gold”. I really love experiments with different foliages, very nice examples!
    Best wishes from germany, Birgit

    Thanks for visiting, Birgit! That ‘Axminster Gold’ really is a beautiful plant.

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