Using Color in the Garden

By Susan Leigh Anthony, garden designer

I cannot draw to save my life, so my gardens are my canvas – I paint with plants.  Using color in the garden is something one develops over time, sometimes from trial and error.  You buy a plant you like and plant it next to something else and it looks fabulous… or not.  If you don’t love how it looks, you move it over to another spot where it looks great… or not.  One thing I have found is that choosing and sticking within a specific color palette is very helpful.  I have a certain palette that is pleasing to my eye, and I use that palette to guide my decisions when selecting plants.

In my front gardens, I have an array of warm pinks, corals, salmons, and peaches.  I cool those down, and add contrast, using blue tones, ranging from violet to lavender to sky blue to cobalt.  I have also dabbed in a touch of pale yellow this year with some tall Conca d’Or lilies.  The warm, pale yellow of these flowers relates nicely to my warm pinks and salmons because yellow is a component of those colors.  If I stick to my palette, I can hardly go wrong.  But for me, my favorite colors appear even more stunning when they are juxtaposed against a contrasting color.  A soft peach near a deep violet or dark blue is magic.  My front garden is a combination of warm and cool shades.  My color goal here is liveliness and vibrancy!

A very important thing to consider is how you want your garden to make you feel.  What mood do you want to create?  One garden in the back of my house and against the garage has gorgeous double pink tree peonies in May, while June features a double trellis covered with hot pink double climbing roses.  Once June is past and the roses are finished, all the featured plants, which will take me through the hot days of summer, are in cool shades:  blues, violets, and purples.  I add in a bit of chartreuse for pop and contrast.  To the very left is a weeping blue spuce which goes with everything and supplies me with some winter interest, as well.  The mood I wanted to create in this spot was cool, refreshing, soothing, and relaxing.

In another back section of my yard, I have to accommodate the hummingbirds, which means a fuchsia plant is a must.  Each year, I purchase a topiary fuchsia plant and put it in a pot along with two topiary pentas (another hummer favorite).  All three are magenta colored.  The underlying cool blue tones of the magenta work well with the blues and purples in the adjacent bed along the garage.  I also underplant all three pots with blue and violet annuals to further tie in all the colors in the back yard.  The cool pinks in my back yard are very different from the warm pinks in my front yard.

Keep in mind that warm colors include yellow, orange, and red.  As the name indicates, they tend to make you think of warm things, such as the sun, fire, and heat.  These colors are frequently very bold and will make your garden sizzle!  Visually, warm colors look as though they come closer, or advance in the landscape.  Cool colors include greens, blues, and purples.  They might remind you of water and sky, even ice and snow.  These colors leave you feeling very soothed and serene, and maybe even ten degrees cooler.  Unlike warm colors, cool colors look as though they recede in the landscape.  As discussed throughout, pinks and purples can fall in either category, depending on their undertones.  Yellows can tend toward the cool side if they have a bit of green in them.  Some reds are cooler than others because they have more of a blue undertone.  On so on and so forth.

Another color to think of in the garden is the color white.  Years ago, I started an area as a Moon Garden. The idea intrigued me and seemed rather magical.  It is an area along my back walkway that we use every evening going to and from our car, so we walk through it regularly.  I also figured it would be nice if we were sitting out in the back yard at night.  This area lasted as a strictly white-flowered, white-variegated foliage garden for a couple of years.  Over time I had to find spots for other pinks and blues, and I added them into that space.  But those white plants have remained and still make the garden glow after dark.  You may want to consider doing something similar, by using all white or at least incorporating a lot of white plants.  It is a lovely sight, especially on a moonlit night.

Because the color of my house is very neutral (silver cedar shingles with white trim and dark green shutters), I am lucky to be able to choose any color scheme I want for my flower beds.  The paint color on your house might help you choose a color palette for your garden.

  • If your house is a dark gray or slate blue, imagine how lovely pale pink roses against that would be.

  • A white house with vivid blues and pinks looks crisp and classic.

  • A yellow house can look very exciting with hot colors:  oranges and a yellow to pick up the shade of the house, along with various blues and violets.

  • A house painted in sage or olive green can provide a backdrop to several different color palettes, anything from strong reds and whites to soft pinks could work.

  • A red house can be somewhat limiting.  Bright greens along with whites and some yellows would be a safe bet.  For the intrepid gardener who is willing to experiment, certain shades of soft warm pink or cool blues and violet can also work with certain reds.

My goal with this piece is to give you some guidance in understanding how to use color in your garden, but don’t be afraid of a little trial and error.  And remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  What is important is to select a color palette that appeals to you, even if it means occasionally breaking “the rules!”

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