I am artistically challenged. I know little about color theory and less about composition. For these reasons I have always shied away from garden design, but every gardener needs to make some attempt to understand color harmony, size and texture relationships as well as distance perceptions.For gardeners trying to make their landscapes more aesthetically appealing, there are few topics as interesting and as important as color, and few things affect the overall look of a garden as much as color. Used effectively, color can create a feeling of calm, graciousness, spaciousness, excitement or just about any mood a gardener might choose to achieve.
If you are planning gardens near or around your home it’s natural to want the color scheme of the plants and flowers to complement the exterior colors. If your home is basically neutral-beige, gray or white you have a relatively easy task because you can use just about any color scheme you like. If, however, your home is accented with a colorful trim, you may want to pick colors that echo that color or complement it. Red, for example, is the direct complement of green, so red geraniums, salvia or petunias, etc., would be a good choice for a neutral house with green trim. Unless you are an expert at using color, stick to two or three colors that you repeat in your annual plantings. This will give a planned, unified look to all your garden spots, and avoid the hodgepodge look that lacks focus and detracts from the overall look that you want to achieve.
For beginners or those who may want some refreshers on using color effectively, it’s important to visit some professionally designed gardens, botanical gardens, some public parks or to read the myriad of magazine articles that appear at this time of the year that offer “free” advice and how-to hints. It’s also garden tour season, and while you may have to make a donation or “investment” of 20 or well up into the hundreds of dollars to view some of the most spectacular gardens in the area, they are an incredible silent guide to the tricks and pitfalls of the trade.
If you are just starting out or if you are not completely artistically inclined, a color wheel is a must. Color wheels can be purchased in art supply stores and in some paint stores. Many library books also have color wheels and you may have one right at home if you have an encyclopedia or art books. Buying a wheel is still a better idea, as they are inexpensive and easy to work with outdoors and easy to take to the garden center as a great shopping aid. The wheel will show you what colors are complementary, analogous, triadic and monochromatic. Don’t panic, they’re only words and we’ll look at each one.
A monochromatic color scheme means that all the flowers (or foliage) are the same color or lighter and/or darker shades of the same color. One example of a monochromatic harmony would be red, pink and burgundy New Guinea impatiens. A truly monochromatic scheme where all the flowers or plants are more or less the same color and shade can create a feeling of spaciousness because the eye is not interrupted by another color. Out here gray gardens have a historic popularity due to the fact that many gray foliage plants like the artemesias are natives, do well in full sun and tolerate dry soils.
However, having everything in the same color could get boring. Introducing lighter and darker versions of the same color can add more interest, while maintaining your overall color scheme.
An analogous color scheme uses colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Reading around a basic color wheel, the colors go from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to violet and then back to red. For an analogous harmony, you can start anywhere on the wheel and go forward and/or backward to get a harmonious scheme. For example, orange calendulas, yellow-orange coreopsis and yellow cosmos would make an analogous planting in the garden.
The complementary color scheme uses colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Examples are red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet. Some very striking uses of color can be made with complements. Orange and its complement blue could be combined in a planting of tall blue lavender with a border of orange marigolds. Yellow petunias planted with blue salvia in a terra-cotta pot would be a complementary color scheme.
An unusual but very attractive idea is to use three colors that are equal distance from each other on the color wheel. For example, yellow sunflowers, red zinnias and Heavenly Blue morning glories form a triadic harmony. This scheme gives you not only more color, but also the opportunity to have a great variety of plants.
Colors can actually stir our feelings with the ability to calm or excite us. Red and yellow are exciting colors that call attention to themselves and any objects near them. These colors can be used splendidly to focus attention on a garden feature such as a gazing globe, statuary, or around a pool of water. Yellow is excellent for bordering steps or other areas where caution should be exercised.
Blue is an amazingly calming color that can actually make us feel cool, even on a hot and steamy summer day. Around a water garden or in pots surrounding a seating area, blue can create that feeling of a restful oasis. Because blue is a receding color, it is one of the first to disappear from view as night falls and it takes masses of blue to really be seen. Blue is an excellent accent with bright pink or yellow and it is the direct complement of orange.
Although most plants come with green foliage, don’t ignore the value of green. Green is restful to the eyes, so allowing the foliage to be seen and admired is also beneficial. And there are plants such as coleus that come in wonderful combinations of green with other colors such as cream, pink, red and various shades of green.
White is so reflective of light that it is usually the last color to fade from view in the evening. In shady areas, we used to use white impatiens, for example, as they stood out in the shadows and could give form and focus to a garden that might otherwise be lost to view. White gives a feeling of cleanliness, purity and precision.
While we often focus on flowers for color in a garden, vegetables can be as decorative as they are delicious. A compact zucchini with a small trellis in a pot provides lush foliage, bright yellow flowers and the attractive texture and shape of maturing fruit. Eggplants, tomatoes, ornamental cabbages and peppers and other vegetables can be used as well.
I’ve intentionally limited the spectrum of this article to annuals because they are almost immediately effective, are inexpensive and easy to replace if mistakes are made and they are readily available as well as somewhat interchangeable. But as you feel more comfortable with the uses of color you can branch out to perennials, biennials, bulbs, trees and shrubs, all of whose statements may last for years or a lifetime. Be colorful and … keep growing.