Your new book is called Fearless Color Gardens. Do you find that most gardeners are afraid to use as much color as you'd like in a garden?
I wrote the book to support and inspire people to use more color throughout their gardens.
Why extend color to the hardscape?
For one thing, the hardscape in a garden is stable. The plants will come in and out of bloom depending on the season, but you'll always have color in the garden if you install a ceramic sculpture as a focal point or a painted bench on a tiled patio as a resting place.
Also, it's another opportunity to be expressive in challenging times. Color is a way to sustain your spirit. Working with color in your garden is very nourishing and supportive, which is important when you're worried about managing economic or environmental resources.
Walking into a garden with a colorful hardscape makes your spirit shine.
Where do you turn for inspiration?
Travel helps keep my creative juices flowing. I just returned from a quick trip to Mexico and I loved the exuberant expressions I saw there that were available through color. I grew up in Southern California around Mexican folk art and the colors and images have always been appealing to me. I also like the challenge of working with broken things - recyclables - that's why I like to create mosaics.
What drew you to color in the first place?
I have a younger brother who is blind. I looked out for him when we were children and would describe the things he couldn't see. It was very hard to describe color to him. In order to communicate to him about different colors I would describe them in ways he could understand - words that communicated color through touch, smell, and sound - so I had to analyze color very completely. Trying to describe color to him made me realize that color was this miracle - something indescribable.
You attended art school in Southern California and studied sculpture at UC Berkeley, but how did you learn about plants?
While I was in graduate school I started going up to Western Hills Nursery in Occidental and worked with Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich. I felt like Alice in Wonderland when I walked through the gate. It was like I'd walked into a secret garden, a dream. There was a fullness and mystical sense about the plants that was very magical. Lester had such a deep and intense relationship with the landscape - he was like a conductor or a painter. I was studying art and looking at art all the time; watching him work with plants, I knew that I was in the presence of someone making art.
How can a non-artist learn to use color in the garden?
In the book I share lots of tools: Keeyla's color triangle, tips on dividing spaces into zones, worksheets. One of the things I always tell people is to take a camera into the garden and frame the space you're working on, just like you would a photograph. It helps orient you to the space.
Also, think about a medium you are comfortable with when you approach garden design. If you appreciate music, then think about what you would want your garden to sound like if it were a piece of music. Mine would be like something from Debussy - very flowing and sensuous, with a little hint of jazz. The plants would capture the light like a French Impressionist's painting. And in order to capture the light I would incorporate plants with goblet shapes that hold light - like poppies and tulips, two of my favorites.
Are there particular colors you're drawn to now?
I've been working with chartreuse and magenta quite a bit of late. Also, red and turquoise. I just created a habitat garden for the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show that I titled "Dances with the Redheaded Snake." It was inspired by an endangered species - the San Francisco garter snake, which is beautifully colored brick red and turquoise.
I love the contrast of strawberries on a turquoise plate or red echevarias and blue cerinthe leaves. In Mexico I fell in love with the brilliant turquoise flowers of the Philippine Jade Vine - unfortunately, you can't grow that here so I'll have to go back and visit.
What colors or ideas will you be exploring next in the garden?
I'm putting more food in gardens - incorporating more edible plants in my garden designs. Playing with color in the food you prepare and serve is another way to practice being colorful. Combining food and dishes is not that different from combining plants and hardscape. Balancing harmonious colors makes a delicious foodscape - just like a colorful garden is a feast for your eyes.
To find out more about Keeyla's work and the open gardens she runs throughout the summer in her Albany garden, visit www.keeylameadows.net.
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