A red hat garden

February 22, 2004

"When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me."

Do you suppose when English poet Jenny Joseph penned that opening to her poem "Warning" in 1961 she had any notion of the movement she was creating? Over the years women privately cherished this idea of kicking over the traces and doing unconventional things. For women "of a certain age" it became the secret rallying cry - dare to be different.

It wasn't until 2000, when one woman gave her friend the poem and a red hat that the Red Hat Society was born. There is now a formalized way for women to translate Joseph's words into action. Women have permission to play dress up, join with friends and add a touch of frivolity to their lives.

Today, groups of women (there are nine groups in Hagerstown), attired in their freedom colors of red and purple, invade restaurants, concert halls and shopping malls. They draw looks that range from puzzled, to amused, to envious.


Thinking about the Red Hat ladies brought to mind my friend Elisabeth Sheldon. Elisabeth - a talented gardener with a painter's eye for color - had for years created exquisite, English-type borders at her Lansing, N.Y., home. Soft hues, so well suited to the pale light of northern skies, flowed in artistic drifts. Yet she sometimes longed for a more intensely colored garden, full of colors that could resist being washed out by the intense sunlight of the tropics.

Elisabeth - always the adventurer - kicked over the traces and created a walled garden (walled so as not to disrupt the color harmonies of her other gardens) that was aglow with orange, vermilion, scarlet and bright yellow. Then, talented writer that she is, she shared her experience in "The Flamboyant Garden" (Henry Holt 1997.)

In my mind a picture began to emerge of a boldly clad Red Hat Lady meeting up with the Flamboyant Gardener. Could the two find happiness in a garden of reds and purples?

Blending hot red and cool purple is a risky business. Are you brave enough to give it a try? It might be best to start on a small scale - with planters or window boxes - then move on to tubs and finally a corner of the garden. Touches of silver or pale yellow might provide a welcome contrast and rest the eyes. While some of the following ideas are Elisabeth's, others come from catalogs. With them in hand, you can create your own unexpected garden.

A window box planted with Vinca "Pacifica Red" combined with the sweet-scented, deep-purple Heliotrope "Iowa" surrounded by a ruff of Plectranthus amboinicus would be a real attention getter. Plain old-fashioned red geraniums complemented by one or two silver thymes and surrounded by Impomoea batata "Blackie" would bring a gray stone planter to life. Coleus are available in extraordinary shades of red. Pick the brightest you can find to center a pot and plant some of the new Surfina Blue petunias to spill their blossoms over the edge. One or two "Yellow Gem" marigolds provide contrast.

For a truly striking arrangement in a tall gray pot, place a Celosia "Fireglow" in the center, add a tall Salvia splendens and surround it with trailing Moses in a Boat (Setcreasea pallida "Purple Heart"). As the season progresses, Moses will produce tiny lavender flowers between the leaves to add interest to the planting.

As you wander through the nursery this spring, check out the other annuals. Ruby chard makes a fine centerpiece, as do ornamental peppers like "Treasure Red" and "Christmas Pepper." Petunia "Primetime Blue" and Trachelium "Passion" might also capture your attention. Helichrysum "Limelight" and Impomoea batata "Margarite" provide a nice lime-yellow color that highlights the darker plants.

If you're brave enough, set aside a section of your garden where you can plant red and purple perennials to cause a stir. Purple Clematis x "Jackamii" will do nicely on a trellis and flourish if its roots are shaded by Monarda "Cambridge Scarlet" paired with the deep-lilac Monarda "Blue Stocking" or the darker Monarda "Prairie Night." In front of them, Lobelia 'Russian Princess' with its brilliant red flowers and purple foliage pulls everything together. Asclepias tuberosa "Gay Butterflies," which produces red, orange and yellow blooms atop two-foot plants, would perk up any arrangement.

To make up for the sobriety of this winter, your motto should be "Plant bright."

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