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Color Theory in the Garden: Home

A Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Karen Roe
A Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Karen Roe

Color is one of the most visible ways of expressing your personality in the garden. A color palette can be bold and playful or restrained and demure. It can excite or calm. Color can brighten up a dark corner or add depth and interest to any design. Color allows us to paint our personalities in the garden.

Don't be afraid to experiment. The best way to learn how to use color in the garden is to try different combinations and decide what you like and don't like. Before purchasing, hold plants up next to each other. Do they work together? Do you like the mix? Whether you're a novice gardener or an expert, understanding the basic principles of color theory can help you choose appealing combinations that allow you to create different moods in your garden space.

Color Basics and the Color Wheel

Color wheels, which can be purchased at most art supply and craft stores, are a fun and easy way of understanding color relationships.

  • Primary Colors -  red, yellow, and blue
  • Secondary Colors - mixing two primary colors together: orange (red and yellow), green ( yellow and blue) and purple (red and blue)
  • Intermediate or Tertiary Colors - colors that are created by mixing a primary and a secondary colors for example, blue-green 
  • Neutral Colors - black,white and gray
  • A hue is just a fancy name for a pure color that contains no black, white or gray. Its value is an indication of how light or dark it is.
  • Tints are colors mixed with white.
  • Tones are colors with grays.
  • Shades are colors mixed with black.
  • Saturation is the intensity of the color - how bright or dull it is.
  • Warm colors (reds, oranges, and yellows) jump out at you. They fall on the right side of the color wheel. 
  • Cool colors (blue, purples, and greens) recede into the background. They can be found on the left side of the color wheel.

Creating Color Schemes

There are many ways of combining colors for different effects. Colors change constantly depending on their surroundings.They are influenced by neighboring colors, as well as light, texture and other variables. A color's brightness will be enhanced when it is placed next to a contrasting color (one that falls opposite it on the color wheel).

Combining bright and dark colors will heighten the intensity of the colors in any composition. Placing small areas of light colors on a dark background (or vice versa) creates a powerful color accent. Below are some color schemes that can inspire many exciting garden combinations.

Monochromatic -- using one color with its different values (tints, tones, and shades). This can be used to emphasize texture and details (bark, berries, foliage and flower form) in the design. Since the color palette is less distracting to the eye, you are able to appreciate the architecture and the texture of the plants.

Analogous or Harmonious -- using colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. They share similar pigments and tend to blend with each other, creating very little contrast. This can be very elegant and restful with cool colors. With hot colors it can be cheery.

Complementary or Contrasting -- using colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. These combinations stand out and provide high contrast. Such combinations are often used in advertising because they catch your attention. Saturated colors have high levels of contrast while muted tints, tones and shades reduce the intensity of any complementary scheme.

Tulips demonstrate the calming effect of colors near to each other on the color wheel at NYBG
Tulips demonstrate the elegant effect of combining colors near to each other on the color wheel at NYBG

Design Tips

  • When combining colors, remember the rule of repetition. A design will look too busy unless you repeat colors and shapes throughout the composition.
  • Choose several dominant colors and accent them with subordinate colors. You do not want the colors to clash or compete with each other for your attention.
  • Remember that your color palette can change through the seasons, depending on what is in flower. Make sure that plants intended to complement each other flower at the same time.
  • Pale colors, yellows and white reflect light and illuminate shady spots.
  • Bright colors work well in full sun. Colors may fade in intense sunlight; colors that would be garish in part-shade can look glorious in full sun. Pastels will fade to a grayish white in bright light.
  • Cool colors (blues and purples) and pale shades create a sense of depth in the garden. Bright colors bring the garden to the fore and make it look closer.
  • When using bright and dark colors, pay attention to the value of the color (how light or dark it is). Bright yellow can compete with bright blue but may look out of place with pale blue. Pale blue and pale yellow work together as do deep blue and pale yellow.
  • White neutralizes color combinations. It separates colors and stops them from blending into one another. White shows up well at night, creates a sense of depth in the garden and will brighten any planting, making other colors look richer.
  • Combine blues with silver foliage plants to intensify the color. Blue adds depth and can be livened up with white, yellow or orange.  Don't place blue in a dark-green setting, it will disappear. Different shades of blue can be a challenge to combine; bright blues may make deep purple-blues look washed out.
  • Red adds energy and excitement. This bold color works well as an accent and to highlight an area. Blues and silvers cool down reds and tame some of their intensity. Pinks are an agreeable tint of red that combine easily with each other and other colors.
  • Yellow can be loud and brassy; it catches light and brightens any area. Bright yellows combine with hot colors (red and orange).  Pale yellows combine beautifully with blue. Yellow is an intense color that should be used sparingly. White helps to diffuse the intensity.
  • Green is hardly a boring color in the garden. Combining different shades of green, from chartreuse to silvery blue-green, can create an exciting composition. Remember the importance of foliage texture when working with greens.
  • Silver foliage picks up light and creates drama. Gray intensifies other colors, making them glow.
  • When experimenting with colors, remember to take into consideration the plants' growing requirements (sun/shade/soil type), and pay attention to maintenance requirements. Remember to dead-head, stake, divide, weed and water.  
Blue creates a sense of depth in the garden and white can liven it up. NYBG Seasonal Walk; photo by Marlon Co
Blue creates a sense of depth in the garden and white can liven it up. NYBG Seasonal Walk; photo by Marlon Co

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