Simplifying Garden Color Theory


Color Reveals Garden Secrets

Color It Calm, Pretty, Or Exciting

Colorful flowers burst forth with emotional qualities that make the loudest impression on our senses. The attention getting properties of garden color are what draw us to displays of bedding plants for sale in spring. It can result in impulsive purchases of shrubs and containers, too. It is only later that that we pay attention to the structural quality of a plant or whether it has fragrance- or will even grow in our conditions!

I’d like to look at this part of the garden planning, partly because of its clamor for attention, but also because this is such a fun part of flower gardening.

Color is basic to the design of a garden. It is usually the first thing we think of when deciding to plant our landscape, although it might take a back seat once the design process is underway. It is never very far from our plans, however.

From the simplest decisions such as what colors we like or what best enhances the house exterior, to the complexities of building an all season garden, floral and foliage hues become a variable that can flummox us or delight us.

This article is to bring more light into the process and outcome.

Once you have made a garden landscape plan, key areas of choice are evident,

  • Your goals for your yard and its style.
  • A plan or schedule of installation.
  • The colors that will give your garden the feeling and look you want.

Hues within formal and informal plans may be the same, but the way they are arranged gives strength to the design. The more formal and structured the style, the more restraint used with color choices as a general rule. But in all cases the effects are usually more pleasing when the hues are combined in twos or threes. It tends to be more restful to the eye.

Shade Or Sun

Colors that recede may be lost in shady spots, while those which gather the most light become luminous. In bright sun the color might look garish in combination with another highly saturated shade, or look faded in bright light.

Look at your light situation in the intended garden area.

Planning for Garden Color, Choosing the Plants

Having chosen the main color group for your plan, the next step is to choose the colors according to harmonies (analogous, complementary, etc.). Find plants in the color you want, keeping in mind the conditions of your garden.

  • Soil pH
  • Soil drainage and moisture
  • Light requirements

These may restrict the numbers of plants in the hues you wish to include.

Using a Color Wheel

A handy tool for color theory is the wheel which gives an idea of harmonies and contrasts to better build a pleasing picture. Many design books have this tool within their pages, and some even have flower suggestions for each shade, but I find a separate tool for the job is handiest.

Warm Or Cool ?

We sense vibration of color as having temperature qualities of warm or cool.

Cool Garden Colors

Blue, Violet, and Green, the cool triad, tend to recede visually.

  • Seem further away than they are
  • Create a feeling of space
  • Blend  rather than stand out

Blue Refreshes

The more rare color of the garden, although blue violets are quite common, this brings a fresh reflection of the sky, a calm receding to its space in the garden. It might seem to disappear altogether in twilight, but anywhere there is a closeup view, it holds our eye. It tones down pinks and reds, and complements most other colors.
Examples of blue blossoms are Myosotis sylvestris, Linum perenne, Ceratostigma, Ajuga reptans.

Words describing blue: Calm, Refreshing, Clean, Cool, Serene.

Violets Charm

Purples are so closely connected to blue in the plant world (most flowers called”blue” are a shade of purple or blue-violet) that we can combine them in our ideas of color mapping the garden. True purples have their own emotive feelings of regality, warmth, and a strong presence, but they are a cool shade which tends to recede. The pale lavenders especially fade back into shadows or other colors.

Examples of purple flowering plants are Wisteria, Iris, Lavender, Verbena bonariensis.

Words describing purple: Regal, Strong, Romantic.

violet colors
purple pansies

Which Purple Is It?


Red-purples are warm, blue-purples are cool, and pure purple is neutral in garden color.

Green Softens

Functioning as a backdrop or performing as the main stage of a garden theme, green is the dominant color of the garden. Even an all green theme can be incredibly varied with the range of shades:

  • green with purple overtones
  • blue-green,
  • yellow-green
  • bronze toned,
  • brownish
  • gray tones

All green plans or with only one pale color added is the base for a therapeutic serenity garden.

Besides foliage, there are green flowers, too. Examples of green flowers are  Moluccella laevis, Nicotiana langsdorfii, Alchemilla mollis

Words describing green: Healing, Growth, Restful, Balanced.

Iberis sempervirens

White Blends

We tend to think of white as a non-color and quite opaque, but just try to construct an all white garden and you soon find how many shade variations there are. They may not all work harmoniously together. If you situate a bright white next to a cream color ,for instance, the contrast can make the cream look dirty.

Color Is Dependent on Light

Aside from pairing white flowers together, when worked into most color schemes they will tend to blend and stitch together otherwise conflicting colors. It also creates contrast, especially against dark green.

White reflects the most light at night and comprises plantings in a moon garden.

Examples of white flowers are Iberis sempervirens, Leucanthemum × superbum, Gypsophila.

Words describing white: Airy, Softening, Pure, Simple.

plae green nicotiana

Pink Pleases

Pink is transitional, ranging from warm to cool. It registers from very pale to quite vivid.

Large numbers of plant selections come with this light version of red. It is a favorite choice in pastel schemes. While possible to make a monochromatic garden color pink, most prefer it as a secondary player or as a triad of blue, white and pink.

Examples of pink flowers are the old roses, Dianthus, Cosmos bipinnatus, Oenothera speciosa.

Words describing pink: Romance, Sweetness, Friendship, Feminine

cool pink effects

The Warm Colors

Red, Orange, and Yellow, the warm triad, tend to advance in the visual field.

  • Appear closer than they actually are
  • Make big space feel smaller
  • Draw attention

Red Vibrates

Red grabs attention, its warmth sends strong signals to birds, bees, and humans alike. While strong in its most concentrated use, red garden color enters subtly as well. In its shadings on buds and leaves, on stems and in seedpods it plays a secondary part that adds richness and depth.

I think it  lends a bit of drama wherever it is found.

Reds belong to two sides of the spectrum in flowers. There are the vibrant warm reds that are named “Vermillion”, and the Carmine reds which have a purple cast… they read as rich and deep … or even strident in some cases. Be careful how you mix purple reds and orange reds.

For Winter Garden Color

Red is the predominate color for winter seasonal interest with its powerful contrast against evergreen branches and the white of snow.

Words describing red: Powerful, Attention-getting, Dramatic, Stimulating.

Yellow Sings


Sunshine and elevated spirits are embodied in yellows. There are probably more flowers that have yellow in them or as their main color than any other color. It is certain that there is no shortage of choice for building a color scheme around yellow flowers.

Many late summer blooms are in this color. Nothing lightens and brightens, or sings in the sunshine like yellow petals. They bring a feeling of cheerfulness and light wherever you place them.

Shady Accent

A standout in shade, although not to the extent of white. it is as if the rays of the sun are caught and distilled within yellow flowers.

The etymology of the word means “to cry out”, because yellow grabs your attention.

Words describing yellow: Optimism, Festive, Sunny, Loud.

California poppies

Orange Cheers

Add orange for a dose of happy feeling. Associated with harvest and ripening fruits, it is a warm hue that melds with brick and tile and makes one think of Tuscany or other Mediterranean places. Not as common as yellow, there are still plenty of flowers in this color and a number of berries, as well. Foliage and pumpkins in autumn forges our mental link of orange with that season.

Try Its Toned Variation

Quite common in tender annuals, its more toned shades like apricot can be found in the modern roses during summer. It never fails to bring bright notes into the flower beds and containers.

Usually used as an accent, it is unusual to see large installations of only orange flowers, except where Nature has her way. It is color for sun loving flowers, though shades of it are luminous in shady spots with shade tolerant plants like begonias and impatiens.

Examples of orange blooms are Hemerocallis fulva, Eschscholzia californica,Calendula officinalis.

Words describing orange: Bright, Friendly, Fiery, Energetic.

Combining, Creating, Contrasting

The subtle beauty of the prairie

The subtle beauty of the prairie

The color wheel brings a simplified way to approach adding together combinations for desired effects. Using triads, the primary red, blue, and yellow, or secondary purple, green, and orange are grouped together. Strongest contrasts are found in the opposites: red and green, purple and yellow, orange and blue. Define the feelings you wish the garden to convey, calming or exciting, and you can begin choosing the hues and then the other elements that a plant has to play its part in the garden scheme.

In nature, there are dramatic scenes with broad swathes of blooming color, but also areas of subtle gradations of tones. Think of a California mountain meadow for the one, and a full bloom prairie for the second.

The Gardener’s Book of Colour

Many Gardening books include tips on color, or even whole sections that include information on color theory, wheels, etc. If putting together themes or container plantings that feature a harmonious combination, you may want an entire reference book on the topic.

The book by Andrew Lawson is one that shows how to put colors together in garden beds, borders, and containers. It will explain how to create harmonizing and contrasting schemes, with detailed guidance.

I always loved this type of book, and it is a modern version of the type of advice rendered by Gertrude Jekyll or Vita Sackville-West. Gardeners can replicate plant for plant or use plans and suggestions as a starting point for their own designs.

Color In Gardens Is Seasonal

Make certain seasons a focal point
Autumn SeasonRed For Fall

How this all works in the actual garden space:

 Perennial Border Johnny Jump-ups (purple/yellow) Turkish Veronica (blue) Coral Bells (red) Photo by Patrick Standish

Perennial Border
Johnny Jump-ups (purple/yellow)
Turkish Veronica (blue)
Coral Bells (red)
Photo by Patrick Standish

Complementary colors, the opposites on the color wheel, combine to make gray, cancel each other out, and make the highest contrast. It all depends on how they blend. I find that reds, alone, against green have little to differentiate and soak up light equally. Variations of shade, how much light is within the flower color, is important. Red gardens are better in bright sunny spaces for that reason.

Purple and yellow become foliage contrast favorites, but can be very jarring in large quantities. This complementary partnership is best when ratios taken from a bloom are used, very sparing accents of the opposite against a large drift of one chosen color.

Blue and yellow can be an effective pairing. The yellow will tend to grab attention, and the softer blues are soothing types in this harmonious color combination.

Polychromatic (many colors) work best when they are similar in brightness to each other. All vivid, all pastel or similar tonings.

While “rules” or suggestions are helpful, the famous Vita Sackville-West had a method of taking a bloom with her through the garden and looking to see what pairings pleased her. Her experience with plants likely filled in the information on structures of the plants, soil and light requirements, etc. but it is a good way to see just how the colors blend or clash, and help visualize the final effect.


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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author


I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of "Ilona's Reflecting Pool". Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. The work on "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.