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Musings on Color, Emotion and Happiness

I like black and white. My garden buddy, Jackson, is a black and white dog. A disproportionate amount of space in my closet contains black and white clothing. While there is a lot of white in the kitchen and my house trim is white, there is a little black in every room in my home.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t like color. I love color, especially in the garden. Color and emotion are linked; different colors affect the way we feel and our response. Here are some words I found associated with color:

Beige: accentuates surrounding colors, dull, boring

Black: elegant, sophisticated, edgy, authority, evil, power, strength

Blue: serene, trustworthy, inviting, calm, cold, truth, focused

Brown: earthy, sturdy, rustic, reliability, sad, friendship

Gray: neutral, formal, gloomy, timeless, practical

Green: natural, stable, prosperous, cool, growth, envy, fertility

Orange: playful, energetic, cheap, safer than red, youthful, happy

Pink: feminine, young, innocent, frivolous

Purple: luxurious, mysterious, romantic, royal, wisdom

Red: passionate, aggressive, important, love and war, stimulating, warmth, comfort

White: clean, virtuous, hopeful, healthy, cleanliness

Yellow: happy, friendly, warming, cheery, frustration, anger

Did you notice that all the colors have positive and negative words associated with them? Maybe because life is not black and white (forgive the pun) so color shouldn’t be either. I think of it as the “yin and yang” of color. Kind of like the adage that “you can’t understand happiness until you’ve experienced sadness”.

Most people are aware that hot colors (red, orange, yellow) are stimulating, and cool colors (blue, green) are calming. But too much hot color can be overwhelming and lead to chaos, and too much cool color can be gloomy. Purple is a combination of red and blue; a perfect balance between stimulating and calming.

So can we use color to “up our happiness quotient”? Let’s start with answering the question: what is happiness? I understand it to be a state of well-being that encompasses living a good life; one with a sense of meaning and contentment. Connection with nature and community is an important factor in happiness, as is cultivating happiness through gratitude, generosity and mindfulness.

I find all these things in the garden. So, let’s take a walk through my garden which is constantly changing and evolving with the seasons.

Just off the path when entering my front garden is a plaque that I read every day: “Scatter seeds of kindness and find peace”. There isn’t a credit on the plaque and I wasn’t able to find one, but I think it’s similar to “you reap what you sow”. I think that we have all heard this so often that we don’t really examine what it really means; in gardening, it is a stark reality and I am happy for the reminder.

In late winter, perky yellow Daffodils and the nodding heads of white Hellebore blooms bring cheer and hope for a new season. The Italian Jasmine flounces over the stone retaining wall; its bright yellow blooms appearing on chartreuse leafless stems. The neon pink blooms of the Redbud are more pronounced without foliage to hide them. These early plants hint of new beginnings, forgiveness and the clean slate of a new season – another chance to get right what didn’t work out in last year’s garden (gardeners are always optimistic).

In early spring, pink and white Oxalis line the path; they are exuberant bloomers with fresh, green, shamrock-shaped foliage that shines in the flat light. The yellow Daffodils are fading but the blue Hyacinthoides and sweet white bells of the Leucojum ‘Gravetye Giant’ have come to the party. In the front of the garden white candytuft and purple verbena look fresh and have a sweet fragrance; the colors are more pronounced being planted next to each other and the verbena provides nectar for the early-arriving Monarch butterflies. This is when the oak and ash trees begin to push out their foliage and the green is luminous. Green is almost a verb at this time of year, which makes sense since it is the color of growth and fertility. Early spring gives us a hint of the lush that is to come. This is when I start to venture into the garden and weed, weed, weed; this due diligence is necessary to keep control. The winter rest has not prepared my muscles for the exertion and the first few days I suffer with stiffness, but soon gain back endurance.

Mid-spring the Oxalis are beginning to fade and are replaced by the bright pinks and purples of Dianthus and Penstemon. The Columbine that grows from the seeds that have been sown for countless summers are making their appearance; what started out as all blue and purple has evolved to include pinks and white. The huge, lush pom-pom blooms of the Snowball Viburnum juxtapose against the small, delicate blooms of the Spirea; both white but with different texture. The lettuce is giving itself up for daily salads. The consistent rains make this the time to sow seeds of warm season herbs and vegetables. Between showers, I dig, divide and re-plant perennials; a necessary chore. It is the gardeners’ responsibility to be a good steward of the plants.

Early summer the Salvia begin to bloom in a riot of color: my favorites are the sassy magenta and regal purples. Salvia are interesting plants in that they bloom and bloom if you do two things: shear them hard in late winter and then by one third again in August, and deadhead the flowers. Shearing them is a simple operation, gather up the branches like a ponytail and cut, but it is as essential to the plant as brushing our teeth is to our health. The flat, magenta umbels of the ‘Anthony Waterer’ Spirea make the purple of the Lunaria shine; another re-seeding annual that has evolved to include some white bloomers. The blue of the Clematis is not spectacular, but the amount of blooms make it a showstopper that invites neighborhood walkers to dawdle and show their appreciation. Slow to the party, the Hosta have completely unfurled and look crisp, ever hopeful that this will be the year that they escape the slugs that will foul their foliage in late summer. The Bugloss has spread its marbled, silver foliage, but if you look carefully you will spy the tiniest baby blue flowers waving on wiry stems above the foliage. The large, flouncy flower heads of the Elder beckon to be made into a summer elixir. The weather is starting to heat up and the lettuce is struggling, but the tomatoes and peppers are growing steadily and gathering the courage to bloom and fruit.

Mid-summer brings the wavy spikes of Butterfly Bush in various colors, the butterfly landing pads of Coneflower, fragrant Lantana and Lavender, the joyful rounded flower heads of Phlox, cheery Shasta Daisy, and frilly Coreopsis. The St. John’s Wort yellow flowers with their conspicuous stamens are plucked to make a healing tincture. This is the reward that was promised when spring began and it is joy to behold. My time in the garden is limited to mornings and even then I work slowly and stop often to hydrate. Jackson seeks shade and visits his water bowl often too.

In late summer gardening consists of reading, writing, and starting seeds indoors for the fall vegetable garden. Checking to see what needs to be harvested in the vegetable garden or plucking a quick bouquet is limited to before the sun comes up. The garden receives a passing glance as I retrieve the mail and I notice that the ornamental grasses are beginning to reveal their shocking pink inflorescences, and the Asters I lovingly pinched back are beginning to put on buds. The Beautyberry drupes are fat and green, and will soon turn shocking violet. The sun is high in the sky and only the strongest of colors can hold up to its glare. Only the Helianthus and Rudbeckia seem to be truly happy with the heat in late summer; their yellow flowers carry the garden.

Fall begins to see some cooling of temperatures and I venture out again in the mornings. The gold of the Mexican Mint Marigold shines against the red of the Pineapple Sage and the blue of the Santa Barbara Sage. The Lantana has grown to such an enormous size that it resembles a caution sign at the end of the driveway. The funny seed heads of the Inland Sea Oats are turning brown. The Japanese Maples are in their glory, turning brilliant shades of magenta; the ‘Little Henry’ Sweetspire also turns a sunny combination of reds and orange before discarding its leaves. The orange of the Cape Honeysuckle and Lion’s Tail reminds me that soon it will be time to shop for pumpkins and decorate for fall (my favorite season). I’m on the lookout for seeds to be saved and thrown, and it’s time to plant the vegetable garden so we can enjoy the bounty until Thanksgiving.

So now we’ve come full circle in the garden. The colors have changed with the seasons along with my mood and energy, but I’m always inspired by Nature.

I began writing this article several months ago and many things have changed. While black and white is still predominate in my closet, my gardening buddy is no longer with me (tear of sadness). We have moved (my choice) from our beautiful house and left my beautiful garden behind. We are in a rent house while building a new home, and my gardening is limited to planning the next garden. I know I will find happiness working in the new garden, nurturing the plants as they nurture me, and hopefully there will be another gardening buddy in the future. And yes, there will be a lot of color. I know color in the garden will always be a source of happiness and inspiration for me – and I hope you too!

Jackson - Summer, 2020

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