Colors In Your Garden – The handling of flower and foliage color in the garden usually causes gardeners the most difficulty, but it also entails the most fun. We all agree that some colors ‘go’ better together than others – though we may disagree which – and that in ‘going together’ these colors enhance each other. Good combinations are what we strive for, and that can involve both harmonies and contrasts.
When deciding how to plan a color scheme, it can be helpful to refer to the chart called the ‘color wheel’, which is based on the spectrum. On this circular diagram, the primary colors (red, blue and yellow) are separated from each other by related secondary colors (violet, green and orange).
Whereas adjoining colors, say orange and butter yellow, are generally perceived to harmonize, those opposite each other, say yellow and violet, are ‘complementary’, that is to say, they provide the greatest contrast.
The color wheel is simply a useful illustration of what many people instinctively perceive. If, for example, you were to plant the deep purple-blue Salvia superba ‘May Night’ next to the yellow Alchemilla ‘Moonshine’, you would find that they made a lively and satisfying contrast, which drew your eye irresistibly. It would, therefore, come as no surprise, and is certainly no coincidence, that the two colors are to be found directly opposite each other on the color wheel and are therefore complementary.
Salvia superba ‘May Night’ and Alchemilla ‘Moonshine’
Flowers and foliage come in an almost infinite number of color variations, and often the colors change as the season progresses and the plant matures. Flower color, or our perception of it, is also affected by external circumstance: by the type and intensity of light (bright colors look paler in the twilight while pale ones acquire luminosity), by the background, and by the color of neighboring plants.
Brightness, or ‘intensity’ is another factor. The hardest colors to place in the garden are the bright ones, especially white, red, yellow and some blues. Bright colors tend to excite the eye and can dominate a scheme out of all proportion to their actual size, so should be used with forbearance. In sunny climates, with greater clarity of light, the use of bright colors is easily justified, while pale colors tend towards insignificance; under cloudy skies bright colors can look brash, even harsh, while the subtler paler colors not only show up to advantage but are easier to manage because of the wider range of colors with which they will harmonize.
We all know what we mean by a color clash, though again we may not agree about what constitutes one. There are no immutable rules, but to avoid causing your guests to recoil in horror when you take them round the garden, take the simple expedient of keeping yellow-based reds away from blue-based ones – or use a green, gray or white ‘foil’ of foliage or flower between them.
Pastel shades rarely clash but, used exclusively, can make for some pretty dull schemes: varying the intensity of color within the scheme is therefore important. You can make a color scheme more interesting by using flowers and foliage in one of the bright primary colors, toned down by neighboring plants of the same color mixed with white to give pastel colors, or black to give the browns, dark blues and purples.
Once you have decided in what proportions you want hot or cool colors in your garden, the choice of color scheme depends first and foremost on personal preference, but it is also important to consider the surroundings. This can be as simple as enlivening a white wall by planting parthenocissus, with its bright scarlet fall foliage, or as complex as softening all the ‘hard landscape’ of the garden with a variety of mixed plantings.
A single color scheme can work well in a very small garden, but it is worth considering changing the predominant colors in mid-season. When the pinks and blues of early summer have faded, the emphasis could shift to the many bronzes, reds and yellows of high summer and fall – perhaps with the blues and mauves of asters and tradescantias to act as contrasts to such a brightly colored scheme.
Everyone has favorite colors, and the most successful gardens reveal the personality of their owners. That being the case, do not be side-tracked by any preoccupation with ‘taste’. The widespread rejection of orange flowers, for example, seems to me inexplicable; deep orange contrasted with blue-purple can be dramatic and satisfying. Think how rich a picture you could paint with the purple Clematis jackmanii ’Superba’ flowering alongside the orange-yellow of Eccremocarpus scaber. Even it a generous selection of colors does not please the purists, that does not mean that it cannot work for you. It is only important to pay due attention to context and proportion; problems arise chiefly it too many warring colors are introduced willy-nilly, without any concern for balance.