Book Review: Fearless Color Gardens

San Francisco Bay-area artist and garden designer Keeyla Meadows offers playful, step-by-step guidelines to making colorful gardens in her new book Fearless Color Gardens: The Creative Gardener’s Guide to Jumping Off the Color Wheel. Illustrating her ideas with dozens of images from her own vibrant garden, Meadows eschews the color wheel for her “color triangle,” which puts the three primary colors at each point and adds harmonizing colors along the lines.

Meadows’s color triangle is much simpler to grasp than the color wheel, and her garden images (all the photos but one are her own) nicely illustrate her techniques for finding harmony and contrast. But I was often confused and distracted by her improvisational, make-believe writing style. Here’s an example:

Now that we’ve traveled down and up the color triangle…reenter my muse, Emerald, to lead the way. Now she’s dressed as a ringmaster. “Wait a minute, Emerald. Watch that whip!” It’s time to take our color characters and put them up on a stage. Let’s put those color stars to work.

Pappy now steps into the ring, holding up his camera in a victory salute. The camera will be our starting tool on the second part of our color journey. For the moment, lay down your shovels, gardeners, and take up your cameras. Pappy is going to show us that a frame is a frame is a frame is a frame. Okay, Pappy, do your tricks.

Meadows is a popular lecturer, and perhaps this jazzy, scattershot tone is her speaking style. For me it became a distraction from her ideas while reading her book.

Another quibble is that too many of her photos, particularly in the first half of the book, are close-ups of, say, a single flower against a harmonizing wall color, rather than wide shots, which are always more helpful in illustrating design concepts. You get a good sense of intimate vignettes in her garden, but it’s hard to see how all that color works together as a whole. Yet I’m sure that it does work because I’ve seen pictures of Meadows’s garden on the blog Shed Style. Check them out and see if you don’t want a tour of Meadows’s fantastically colored and creative garden too. It just looks fun.

In part two of her book, Meadows shows how to use color in making a garden, and she has some fine observations. She proposes using a camera to frame the “working area” and adding a focal point to organize the space. She observes that her gardens photograph well because “they are set up as a series of pictures. Each space is organized with strong focal points that bring the eye to a stop. Once the eye stops at a particular spot, everything is ordered around that spot. While this is a basic principle in painting composition, it works well for gardens too.”

For Meadows, sculpture is the most desirable focal point in a garden, although she acknowledges that garden structures, potted arrangements, benches, and even particularly striking plants make good focal points too. Ever the artist though, she admonishes the reader, “No excuses. Your garden needs sculpture.”

Although the images of her floriferous garden would have you believe her color sense is mainly confined to flowers, she is global in her color theory: not only flower and foliage but also house and hardscape become essential elements in a garden’s color scheme. She paints concrete paths, walls, trellises, pots, and her home’s siding so as to harmonize or contrast with her plant choices. The result is a garden saturated with color. Meadows frequently compares a garden to a stage production, with color as the star of the show. However, the role of hardscaping mustn’t be overlooked. It is, she says, “the theatrical stage setting where your plants are going to show their stuff.”

The colorful photos make this a good book to curl up with on a cold winter’s day, and it will prime you for spring planting. If you’re inhibited about using color in your garden, Meadows’s exuberance and step-by-step instructions might help you feel comfortable introducing color to your plantings or, more boldly, your hardscaping. However, a trip to the nursery or the paint store might do just as well, and I suspect even Meadows might agree with me.

All material © 2006-2010 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

20 Responses

  1. Even with its limitations, it looks like a good book and launch pad. Thanks for the review.~~Dee

  2. Most of the color that I saw in Meadows’gardens, at Shed Style, is supplied by the buildings that form the background to her gardens. From my perspective, these colors do not enhance the gardens. Instead, they compete with, and detract from, the gardens themselves.

  3. I’ve was going to write a review of this book right after I read it, but I decided to hold off until I can start applying the principles in my garden, which is making the wait for spring even longer (if that’s possible). I was so inspired by all her painted surfaces working together. I will admit that her use of such bright colors is probably best for a hot climate, whereas more subdued tones are more fitting for more northerly gardens.

  4. Gail says:

    I love the way she uses sculpture and color in her garden… I talk myself out of it! You know what~ it’s time to take that leap! Thanks Pam! gail

  5. We’re looking forward to seeing the garden Keeyla is creating for the SF Flower & Garden Show, ‘Habitat Dance with a Red Snake.’ We’re pretty sure a lot of color will be involved! She’ll also be talking about and signing this book (maybe Emerald and Pappy will stay at home!) Nice review

  6. Jenny says:

    I enjoyed looking at the photos on her blog and it would be a fun garden to visit- but too busy for my eyes. It is a one of a kind garden and maybe her idea is to inspire, giving vignettes on how to work with color. I doubt many would ever go so over the top. Hope this isn’t too harsh but I like more subtle color even though I myself make little effort to find colors which harmonize. Most seem to work anyway.

  7. Thanks for the review, Pam.

    Jenny said what I was thinking – Keelya’s garden looks like a great place to visit for a few hours to wander and admire her use of color. The snake patio is enchanting.

    But after a few hours I’d want to be magically transported to to Mrs Whaley’s in Charleston for R & R.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    It’s funny you mentioned Mrs. Whaley’s Charleston garden, Annie, because I almost wondered aloud how Meadows avoids the spectacle of “too many dancing girls,” as Mrs. Whaley wryly described the overuse of garden decor. —Pam

  8. Becky Lane says:

    I had no idea she had a new book out. I love “Making Gardens Works of Art”, but I don’t remember her writing style being that nutty. That would be a struggle for me to read. Love what she does with color though, and have been lusting for one of her crazy ceramic people sculptures, pots, or some of her wall art. Know anybody around these parts who makes stuff like that?

    I found fun, creative, and colorful garden art at Sol’stice in Dripping Springs recently, Becky. Click the link for my review of the place. —Pam

  9. cheryl says:

    I got my copy of her new book 2 days ago…I can’t wait to get outside and start planting. Being a “flower floozy” as well as a color-o-holic, I find her books to be very inspiring. I love how her yard/house is over the top and yet…I don’t find it at all “tacky”. Its a fine line. LOL We got to meet her at Annie’s Annuals a couple of summers ago. We were inspired to paint flower pots. Very fun.


  10. debra says:

    hi Pam, I like your review of Keeyla’s book. She is one of those free spirits who combines art and horticulture with bravado, audacity and whimsy. We’re not all like that. But it is sure fun to watch and experience.
    I count myself lucky to have seen her garden in person. It is an extravganza of pigment. Not for everyone, but definitely a personal reflection of her style.

  11. Darla says:

    I do have to say this feels like the most ‘Honest’ review I have read in a long time!

  12. Michelle D. says:

    It is highly probable the reason why you do not see any full frontal wide angle shots of her landscapes is because they are just way too chaotic to the eye. Color is an element of good design but is secondary to creating a garden with the good strong bones of form, texture, and shape.

  13. I have been hoping that you’d be reviewing this book, Pam. I wanted to see what a designer thought of it. As a mainly-plant person who doesn’t do design but does play with colour, I liked the book and thought it had an exuberant, encouraging style. In that way, it reminds me of Christo Lloyd’s Colour for Adventurous Gardens and Sarah Raven’s The Bold and Brilliant Garden. Nicely argued and written review, of course!

  14. I am on the waiting list for this book at the library. I am usually trying to tone down color but I was curious to see what she said and showed. I am even more curious now that I’ve read your review.

  15. Jane says:

    Thanks for this review, Pam. It touched on many of the things I’d look for (or avoid) in choosing a garden book. I agree with Darla’s assessment of the honesty of your review and for me, it’s all the more valuable because of it.

  16. Great review. This on color, it is good to see what others are doing out there in this big world of ours, but in the end your aesthetic, your climate, your place, culture all come together and help give clues to where you might go!

  17. Diana says:

    Sounds really interesting – thanks for the review. I’ve slowly been adding color to my garden (other than plants!) and giving myself permission. May have to buy the book! And I did ask for & get some garden sculpture for Xmas and can’t wait to put it into my bed.

  18. linda says:

    Thanks for the clear-eyed review Pam! Her exuberance with paint is a bit much for me, although I’m all for lots of color in the garden.

  19. PAULALALA says:

    I bought this book and find many of the photos inspiring and, yes, some of the writing is a bit twee, to be sure. My big quibble, though, is that the swoon-worthy hardscapes don’t include even basic contruction instructions. My garden budget says “do-it-yourself” and I’m not sure where to even start to make the wonderful patchwork or snake patios. Guess Ms. Meadows is the artist and her construction crew are the craftsmen (women).

  20. ryan says:

    She has a ton of gardens around my area, all of them immediately identifiable as Keyla Meadows gardens. I’m pretty sure my mom likes her gardens better than any of mine. I’ll need to check out the book. Thanks for the review.