Garden Color

Harmonies and accents for best effect

foliage and flower effects

Garden Color, Using It Like An Expert


WWhen speaking of color, light is everything. Anyone studying art or photography knows this: that the perception of color is dependent upon light. The garden’s feeling is determined by its light situation and the seasonal variations. So, the choices of color are affected, as well.

The intense sunlight of summer can wash out pastel hues, or plant details in a shady nook could be visually lost when dark blue and purple are the only colors used.

That doesn’t mean such combinations can’t be used, it simply bears consideration so that you have the effect you desire.

An unusual color group could give unexpected pleasure: this summer, sitting in a position where the sun shone through the mahogany leaves of the purple sand cherry with its companion of oriental poppies, gave such a rich experience. I wanted to hold time still. – Ilona Erwin

Garden Color: Foliage


Foliage participates as color, even though, in the plant world, green is a neutral  background. Besides the myriad shades of true greens, there are blue-greens, silvers, and mahoganies.

Chartreuse yellow and trimmings of both yellow and white are available in many varieties. So besides the plant shape and leaf textures, a gardener has an artist inventory of effects to play with.

Secret tip for combining colors: white flowers and silver foliages almost magically blend the whole picture together.

Mahogany and purple leaves tend to accentuate and contrast and yellow/chartreuse foliage will punctuate and light up shadowy areas.

Ideas for a Border of Purple-leaved Plants:

Try Rosa glauca with black tulips and an ice pink, such as “Pink Diamond”. The silvery blue leaves of Dianthus gratianopolis and the later pink flowers were quite a pleasing addition to this picture. The weeping crab, ‘Red Jade’, the purple sand cherry, with the double tulip ‘Angelique’ and the cream white daffodils ‘Mount Hood’ created a subtle spring scene.
In early summer, a ‘Hansa’ rose under the crabapple and next to the sand cherry.

Rosa glauca with Clematis ‘Niobe’ was as good as I’d hoped. Better. Footed with the silver lambs ears, Stachys lanata, and some pale pink daylilies. I used ‘Catherine Woodbery‘ which has the same tones as the new foliage of the rose. A penstemon, ‘Huskers Red’ with small mounds of deep foliage and spiky stems of white flowers is in this group -a wonderful, hardy plant. The ‘Peaches and Cream’ verbena makes a flat edging.

Another flower very effective with purple-leaved plants is the annual Shirley poppy in the ‘Fairywings’ variety. These colors are dreamy lavenders, dappled whites and roses, dusty pinks – single, veined, and ruffly like silk crepe.

Coral bells (Heuchera) would be wonderful here, they come in a large variety of foliage colors now, as well as the many graceful coral flower colors. Some would contrast, like the new Heuchera villosa ‘Pistachio’, and some would harmonize.

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The book, Heucheras and Heucherellas: Coral Bells and Foamy Bells could introduce you to growing these exciting new plants.
Late Summer & Fall
Boltonias, light pink asters, and maroon chrysanthemums. Button cream white cushion mums of ‘Baby Tears’ and anemones in white, ‘Honorine Jobert’, and silvery pink (Anemone Robustissima).

Interested in a White themed garden or a Blue theme?

California dreamin'
There is something to be said for both the “tried and true” and the “new and unusual” types of plant and color combinations.

Tried and true groups would consist of such plants as petunias, geraniums (pelargoniums), and marigolds in bright or pastel harmonies. They give a dependable show, are widely available and easy to grow. Such plantings can also be a little tiresome.

The “new and unusual” are potentially a great success or failure, or may be an acceptably mild mediocrity. Occasionally, they inspire obsessions; but if you’re at that stage of gardening, what are you doing on my page? Such people are called “specialists” !

Black Hollyhock

Here are a few quotes on color:

Use dark colors to add depth. Much like a painting, flower borders need a range of color values to add dimension. A mistake that I have made is filling a bed with color that is all the same value, for instance all pastel or all highly saturated hues. The result is flat, and very one dimensional. By adding dark tones such as the almost black blooms of tulip ‘Queen of the Night’ or a midnight blue Salvia like ‘Black and Blue’, a spatial illusion is created and the composition becomes much more dynamic. ~P. Allen Smith

P. Allen Smith’s Colors for the Garden: Creating Compelling Color Themes

Every garden-maker should be an artist along his own lines. That is the only possible way to create a garden, irrespective of size or wealth. ~Vita Sackville-West

“Colours change: in the morning light, red shines out bright and clear and the blues merge into their surroundings, melting into the greens; but by the evening the reds loose their piquancy, embracing a quieter tone and shifting toward the blues in the rainbow. Yellow flowers remain bright, and white ones become luminous, shining like ghostly figures against a darkening green background.” ~Rosemary Verey, The Scented Garden, 1981

Some Color Notes

Complementary colors: opposites on the color wheel i.e. blue and orange.
Analogous color scheme: colors that are adjacent to each other.
Monochromatic colors: colors from one family; i.e. all reds.
Triadic Color: three colors evenly spaced on a color wheel, such as the primary colors.

Playing With Color

lemon symphony

One technique to try is “color echoing”. A good illustration is the Osteospermum “Lemon Symphony”, which has a disk of deep purple and ray petals of lemon yellow, with a rim of bright violet and bright orange disk florets.

The complementary combination of palest yellow and deepest purple is melded with just a hint of their harmonic neighbor, orange.

This flower surrounded by purple petunias, and accented with orange marigolds would echo the colors within “Lemon Symphony”, repeated within different forms.

Any color can be either warm or cool. There are orangey-reds that are warm and purplish-reds that are cool. There are purplish blues that are cool and greenish blues that are warm. There are lemony yellows which are cool and orangey yellows which are warm. There are bluish purples that are cool and reddish purples which are warm. There are reddish browns which are warm and greenish browns that are cool. There are bluish grays that are cool and pinkish grays which are warm. There are bluish whites which are cool and yellowish whites which are warm. There are yellowish greens which are warm and bluish greens which are cool”. ~ Color and Vocabulary

Color Moods:

Red is a very emotionally intense color.

Orange has very high visibility, so you can use it to catch attention
and highlight the most important elements of your design.

Use yellow to evoke pleasant, cheerful feelings.

Blue is strongly associated with tranquility and calmness.

Light purple evokes romantic and nostalgic feelings.

White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, purity

Quicklist: hints and tips

Garden Color Ideas
  • Harmonies for soothing
  • Contrasts for excitement
  • Monocolors for impact
  • Whites, silvers, and creams for blending
  • Warm colors for attention-getting effects.
  • Cool colors for serenity