Throughout the summer, sumptuous colour cascades across an expanse of grass just beyond the Orangery, near Kew Palace. The Colour Spectrum – a series of nine beds radiating from a central point – is hugely popular with both people and bees. Created in 2000 for the Year of Colour festival, the Colour Spectrum is alive with the busy snapping of camera shutters at the height of the season, as visitors try to capture its abundant paint-box glory.
The Colour Spectrum’s three narrow, ribbon-shaped beds are planted with annual and herbaceous plants in primary colours. Then beside the red, blue and yellow ribbons, wider beds swirl out, each planted with a subtle arrangement of flowers, graduating from the primary colour through various shades before reaching the next primary colour.
But this is far from being a formulaic or even a formal arrangement of plants. And it’s perhaps the only place at Kew where plants are treated not as individual specimens but as colours on a painter’s palette. The subtle juxtapositions of colours and textures are a delight, and often surprise even its designers.
The success of these combinations lies in the wide range of plants used. Unusually for Kew the scheme depends, to a large extent, on annual plants used in an informal way. Herbaceous and bulbous plants make up the remainder, with just a few flowering shrubs adding colour. Large, dramatic forms punctuate the beds at intervals. There’s little of the conventional tiered herbaceous border here – the strong stems of sunflower ‘Moonwalker’ support the wiry stems of purple fennel, with its clouds of tiny green-yellow blooms. Robust towering angelica shelters the shell-like pea-green flowers of bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis), the graceful wisps of squirrel-tail grass (Hordeum jubatum) and pineapple-like inflorescences of Eucomis bicolor. Vegetables spring unexpectedly from the petal-shaped beds – rich red-stemmed ‘Rhubarb’ chard enlivens the red/blue bed, and ‘Lollo Rossa’ lettuce continues the theme.
There is no way that a feature of this scale – it’s the size of a football pitch and contains about 7,000 plants in up to 300 varieties – could be added to the workload of the existing gardeners, so it’s maintained under contract by Landform. My colleague Steve Ruddy and I prepared the concept and initial plans, while Lucinda Burgess and Troy Scott Smith, known for their work on National Trust gardens, were responsible for the original plant selection. The first year proved how successful the feature could be. By mid-summer the site was transformed. Where for two centuries there had been nothing but grass, there were flowers in every imaginable hue….

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John Lonsdale, Head of Public Programmes at Kew