Much like an artist uses oils, the gardener uses plants to paint strokes of color across the landscape. Part of the art and beauty of gardening lies in the ability to combine nature’s hues in a way that delights the eye and engages the viewer. Some instinctively know which colors work well together and the exact shade to use to perk up a drab border. For others, the process is more hit or miss, moving plants around to find the right combinations. Whether your tastes run to brilliant reds and yellows or restful blues and greens, the secret to creating the look and feel you want in the garden is often simply a matter of understanding the effects of different color combinations.
Analogous colors are those that are closely related on the color wheel. Yellows, oranges, and red-oranges (or blues and violets) used together create a feeling of harmony. Combining analogous colors is perhaps the most popular color scheme used in gardening.
Complementary colors are colors that are opposite on the color wheel, such as violet and yellow, blue and orange, and red and green. These colors offer the greatest contrast, so the effect can be bold and dramatic, even vibrating. Be careful not to mix small amounts of complementary colors together, however, as from a distance the colors will tend to blend, appearing gray. Larger areas of one color positioned against an area of its complement will work to create an exciting contrast.
Triadic colors are groups of three colors that are spaced equidistant from one another on the color wheel. Using areas of primary colors, such as red, blue, and yellow, together in your garden can create a dramatic effect. As with complementary colors, too many small patches of varying color can create a gray or neutral tone from a distance. Plant larger areas of color to benefit from this electric contrast.
A single color used throughout the garden can create a wonderful feeling of unity. To keep this area from becoming too monotonous, use plants of varying textures and varying degrees of value (lights and darks). An all-white garden, featuring silvery-greens along with a variety of white blossoms, will impart a feeling of purity and light. You can add hints of pale blue for a cool, quiet mood, or warm things up with a splash of yellow.
Cool colors, such as blues, violets, and pinks, can create a quiet, calming effect, while warm colors, such as bright yellows, oranges, and reds, tend to make a bold and dramatic statement. Placing plants with cool colors, which recede from the eye, behind those with warm colors, which advance, creates the illusion of depth in a small space.
Perhaps the best rule to follow in creating a color statement in your garden is to experiment. Try unusual combinations of color together to see for yourself what works for you in your space. Move plants around…as a color that isn’t quite working in one area may look great in another.