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Color Theory for the Garden

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 15 March 2002

What colors "go together?" It depends what effect you want to make.

Artists think about color with the visible spectrum arranged in a wheel, progressing from red to orange to yellow to green to turquoise to blue to purple ...and back to red. The colors which are opposite there, called "complementary," intensify each other when placed side by side. To make purple flowers look more powerful, put them next to yellow ones, orange next to blue. Red always makes a strong effect in the garden: its complement is green!

For more subtlety, combine colors that are near each other on the wheel. Reds, oranges and yellows (especially the brassy and sunny yellows) give an impression of warmth and energy; planting them together makes it even stronger. Cool greens and blues soothe and refresh the view. Purples can go either way, depending on how much they lean toward red or blue. Is the color bright or soft? That changes the impact, too.

White flowers mixed with other colors act like a universal complement, highlighting the garden with sparkle. Combining different white flowers, with no other color, results in a bed of subtle elegance. Blue is the rarest color in garden flowers, especially a true blue; for this reason many gardeners treasure it. Violet is much more common, and the most common flower color is pinkish-purple, (mauve).

Planting flowers of different colors mixed together, the effect is informal and gay. Masses of one color in the same plant (for example impatiens) used repeatedly around the yard ... gives a coordinated look. At Giverny, Monet planted "monochromatic" areas, using many tones of one color together: the eye lingers, exploring the relationships. Masses of different colors are more tricky: if it's the same plant, that gives an impression of relationship; consider how the masses balance each other in the space.

The great English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll created one border, 300 feet long and 14 feet deep, which started at one end with pure blue, and the other end with purples and lilacs. Then both sides progressed toward the center through gray-blue, white, palest yellow and palest pink, building in intensity to stronger yellows, then orange, and in the center, bright red. Each color was partly in distinct masses and partly inter-grouped.

Don't forget to keep track of when each plant blooms! I was so disappointed when soft-pink 'The Fairy' rose didn't start blooming until the masses of delicate blue speedwell I had planted around her were all done.

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More Information:

  • How color works depends on your medium. Light and Pigment; Additive and Subtractive Light, by Lee Harrington, describes the experience of an artist familiar with pigments (plants are in this category) who is learning to use light (for exmaple, on a computer screen). A Lifetime of Color has color illustrations of the difference. For an additive color wheel, see this page: note that red is not opposite green, yellow is not opposite purple.
  • More detail about applications to garden design:
  • If you want to read more about Gertrude Jekyll's approach, I suggest you find a copy of her book Colour in the Flower Garden. Published in 1908, it was reprinted in 1995 by Timber Press.
  • An Overview of General Color Theory

© Copyright 2002 Catherine Holmes Clark