Color in the garden typically elicits the most emotional response, those gasps of
appreciation that are music to a gardener's ear. And everyone has colors he or she is partial
to. But there's more to working with color in garden design than just throwing everything
together in hopes of achieving a "Pow!" effect. By understanding how colors interact and how we
react to them, you can use them to better advantage in the landscape.
Everyone has seen a color wheel, but here are a few 101 basics. Red, blue, and yellow are
called the "primary" colors. By combining these we get the "secondary" colors of orange (red
plus yellow), purple (blue plus red), and green (yellow plus blue). Amazingly, combining just
primary colors, black, and white can create every hue imaginable.
Colors opposite each other on the wheel are said to be "complementary" (red and green, blue
and orange, purple and yellow). Putting these beside each other in the garden lends a lot of
punch. For example, purple salvia planted with yellow coreopsis has big impact, while the
salvia might almost disappear beside a lavender. It works best to have more of one
complementary color than the other, so the two aren't duking it out visually. In other words,
use a few salvias with a mass of coreopsis, or one nice coreopsis against a larger group of
Colors next to each other on the wheel are "analogous" (red/orange/yellow,
blue/purple/green). Using these together can be very harmonious. Red, orange, and yellow are
called "warm" colors for obvious reasons - think sunshine and fire. These colors are exciting
and make our heart rates go up. Conversely, a combo of blue, purple, and green, which are
called "cool" colors, is peaceful and relaxing.
So, if you want a border with a lot of energy, try black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, gaillardia,
red-hot poker, poppies, butterfly weed, and daylilies. For a soothing effect, look to
delphinium, hydrangea, cornflower, pincushion flower, lavender, and angelonia. While most
people think of flowers first for color, actually foliage, fruit, and bark can bring a lot of
color as well, especially if you want to extend the season.
A few words of caution: A garden loaded up with warm colors can be jarring, and too many
cool ones can be monotonous. Use white sparingly: It draws the eye even more than hot colors do
and can be distracting. And be sure to provide places for the eye to rest. One way to do this
is to break up masses of flower color by allowing foliage to show through and not have
everything in bloom at the same time.
To really make things interesting, interplay warm and cool colors. Such as sweeps of cool
colors interspersed with smaller groupings of hot colors as focal points, or masses of warm
colors with soothing moments of blues and purples among them. In the landscape warm colors seem
to advance toward us, which is useful if you want to bring the back of a deep border more up
close and personal, or draw the eye to something at a distance. Cool colors seem to recede in
the landscape, which can be used to make a bed seem larger.
Also, take note of any "color echo" opportunities. For example, the peach-colored petals of
African daisy encircle vibrant purple centers, which can be echoed by purple verbena. Or repeat
a color using different plants, such as tulips and dianthus, both in pastel pink.
The goal is to have the garden look like it's in communion, not discord, whether your
penchant is for panache or subtlety. And your personal taste is important. Just don't let it
narrow your options. Even if you think you don't like yellow, keep in mind the benefits yellow
can have in a garden, and the huge range of yellows! Other things to take note of when choosing
colors for your garden are the colors of your house and hardscaping, and the views through the
windows. If you have a lot of red in your interiors, you might not want to look out at hot