We hear a great deal regarding the use of color in the garden. Various combinations of color can catch people's attention while other combinations create a sense of space. Color can be envisioned as having three dimensions. The first dimension, hue, is the quality by which colors are distinguished from each other. The second dimension, value, defines the quality of lightness or darkness within a color. Those values darker than the particular color are called shades while lighter values are called tints. The third dimension of color is intensity. It is also referred to as saturation purity or chroma. Intensity defines the strength or weakness of a color or its brightness or grayness.
Color wheels are often used to assist gardeners in planning appropriate combinations in the garden. Color wheels can be purchased at art supply stores or paint stores. Color wheels can help gardeners visualize various color harmonies. A monochromatic color scheme means that all the flowers are the same color or differing values of the same color. A true monochromatic scheme can create a feeling of spaciousness because the eye is not interrupted by another color. However, a scheme where everything is the same color can get boring. By introducing lighter and darker versions of the same color we add interest to the garden. An analogous color scheme uses colors next to each other on the color wheel.
Start anywhere on the wheel and go forward and/or backward to select your own harmonious scheme. An example would include the colors red, red-violet and violet. The complementary color scheme uses colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. One of my favorite complementary color schemes is yellow and violet. Complementary schemes can create quite striking combinations. A triadic harmony uses three colors that are equal distance from each other on the color wheel. An example would be the colors red, yellow and blue. These combinations provide abundant color and variety in the garden.
For best results, keep the color scheme in the garden simple by sticking to one, two or three colors. Avoid a shotgun approach with one color here and one color there. A simple design gives a planned, unified look to the garden. Repeating the same colors in the landscape but using different plant types can create a similar effect. Many gardeners plan their flower beds to accent the colors of the exterior of their home. An example might include a tan house with green trim. A natural color of flowers to compliment the house would be red. Dramatic color combinations will give your garden and home a distinctive look.
Shaded areas of the garden can be brightened by using light-colored annuals such as white, light pink or pale blues. In the shade, dark colors tend to get swallowed up unless they are surrounded by a lighter color to provide contrast. Consider how your plants will blend or contrast with their surroundings. For example when selecting flowers next to red bricks or a redwood fence, white or yellow flowers would be good choices. Red flowering plants would simply fade into the surroundings.
Each area of the garden should have some type of focal plant. This can be accomplished with a pool of water or garden statuary but it can also be done through a massed planting of one color. Surround the massed planting with flowers or other plants that contrast in color or texture. Some yards have unintended focal points (telephone poles, fire hydrants). Create a desirable focal point away from the object to draw attention in that direction to lessen the effect of the obstruction.
Colors have the ability to affect our emotions. Bright colors such as red and yellow are warm colors that excite us. They call attention to themselves and any objects near them. Red and yellow would be an excellent choice for focusing attention on a garden feature or even bordering steps or other areas where caution should be exercised. As people enter your home you may want to creat excitement. Strong colors like yellow, orange, and red help to create that feeling. Warm colors can also be overpowering to the eye and should be used carefully. Blue is a calming color that can actually make us feel cool. Around a water garden or in pots surrounding a seating area, blue can create a restful atmosphere. Blue is a receding color and is one of the first to disappear from view as night falls. It takes large masses of blue to really be seen. Many people don't appreciate the value of green in the garden. Green is restful to the eyes and is an important color combination with cream, pink, red and even other shades of green. Green does not vie for attention or dominance yet it provides stability throughout the seasons. Green creates necessary voids that allow our eyes to travel from one part of the garden to another. White is reflective of light and creates a feeling of cleanliness, purity and precision. White makes an excellent choice for an evening garden where it can stand out in the shadows and give form and focus. Gray and silver provides that same sense of serenity.
Color is an invaluable tool in creating the individual look we're trying to achieve both indoors and out. Allow color and your imagination to create your own artistic masterpiece in the garden.
This article originally appeared in the March 15, 1996 issue, pp. , 1996 issue, pp. 26-27.