Color is frequently the first thing a person notices, whether they’re looking at a garden, clothing, interior décor or a car. It can be one of the first things a person thinks about when they want to create a garden. But for some reason, many people are confused and/or intimidated by color. They shouldn’t be; it’s really not very complicated.
One very basic choice is whether to go with a monochromatic, analogous, or contrasting color scheme. Contrast involves using tints that are directly across from each other on a color wheel, like orange and blue or green and red. Monochromatic is obvious; all white, all pink, all purple. In an analogous scheme, you use colors next to each other on the color wheel or in the rainbow: blue and purple, red and orange (a color wheel and more explanation of color theory can be found here . Contrast is energetic; monochromatic is soothing and sophisticated. An analogous scheme can go either way, depending on the colors used. Which of these feelings do you want to get in your garden? Monochromatic doesn’t have to be boring at all; vary the heights and textures of the plants and you’ve still got a lot to look at.
Next, colors are divided into warm and cool. Warm colors are yellow, orange and red. Cool ones are green, blue, and purple. Of course, some colors can lean either way- purple can lean to the warm if it has enough red in it. Red itself can be cool, warm, or perfectly balanced: a warm red has a slight orange tinge while a cool red has an ever so slight tinge of blue- and this is much harder to find in plants. This is much easier to see when red is diluted to pink; it’s easy to tell a peachy pink from a lavender pink.
Warm colors advance, or look closer to you, than cool ones. For this reason, if you have a small garden, put warm colors near the path or house and cool colors further away. This can create the illusion of a larger garden. Warm colors are exciting; cool colors are calming.
Saturation is the intensity of a color. Think crayon colors: in crayons, red, yellow, green etc are all saturated- they couldn’t be any more red, yellow or green than they are. If a color is very saturated, it’s exciting even if it’s a cool color. If you love a color but in its pure form it’s too much for your garden, try a pastel version of it; peach instead of bright orange.
Your eyes to go light colors before they go to dark; if you have an area you want to highlight, plant it in light colors. If there is a spot you’d rather people not pay much attention to, plant darker shades. Bright yellow is the most noticed color.
Then there are neutrals. Gray, white and brown are neutrals everywhere, but in the garden you can add green to that list. These neutrals can act as separators between differently colored sections of the garden. They can also tone down bright colors- you might like bright orange but consider a lot of it ‘too much’ but if you put some bright orange flowers in with gray foliaged plants it immediately looks sophisticated instead of garish. Neutrals can be foliage, bark, paths, fences or walls.
Light changes how a color looks. The light at noon has different wave lengths than that at sunset. Morning and evening light is more in the red zone, and it warms colors. At noon, the bright sun washes out soft colors, while just after sunset the soft pastels reflect the available light and seem to glow. What time of day will you be spending time in your garden? If the seating area is used at sunset, use colors that will look good at that time of day. If you’re out in the yard at mid-day, use bold colors.
Remember that color isn’t just in the flowers. It’s also in foliage, bark, berries, walls, benches, gazing globes, statues and garden gates. And many plants change colors through the seasons- a ‘Gold Mound’ spirea has different colors in its foliage in spring, summer and fall, as well as having flowers. As flowers age, their colors may change- many roses do this.
Different colors suit different types of gardens. Bright, saturated colors are out of place in an Oriental garden- a Zen garden will most often have only neutrals- but are just what you want in a tropical one. A formal garden will usually use fewer colors than an informal one. Mediterranean gardens are brighter than northern ones.
If you’re worried about whether or not you’ll like a combination, try it first with annuals. A summer with hot pink zinnias will tell you if you want hot pink perennials, and a bed of Jolly Joker pansies will let you know if you like purple and orange together (it’s actually a great combination, which surprised me). Try the colors in containers; you can move them around that way and see if the mix looks good in various spots. Colors that you don’t think will go together can be used in the same garden if you separate them with a neutral or with a blending color- look at some of Gertrude Jekyll’s designs sample here) where there is every color in the rainbow used but they follow the rainbow, red flowing into orange into yellow into green into blue. Color should be fun; feel free to play with it!