Using Color In Garden Design

Color is very much a matter of taste in the garden design as anywhere else. Some people want their garden to be a riot of reds and bright colors; others prefer a more subtle approach of misty blues and pinks in association with silver leaves. Others again will find the variety of colors provided by foliage alone is all the color they need.

Color is not a finite thing. It is affected by all sorts of things, including the other colors surrounding it, the quality of the light shining on it and the texture of the flower or leaf itself. Colors also appear different in different climates. In Mediterranean areas, the harsh overhead sun creates hard contrast and shadowes. Bright colors are necessary or they will not be noticed at all. The more intense the light, the more saturated the color needs to be.

In more northerly areas, the summer sun is lower in the sky and there is more moisture in the air. The resulting light is always slightly soft and blue, and pastel colors take on a particular glow not found in hotter areas.

Study of color

The science of color was avidly studied by Victorian gardeners. When the French scientist, Chevreul (1786-1889), published a report on his study of color for the Gobelins Tapestry Workshop in Paris, many British gardeners argued for the use of complementary colors, as recommended by him. Other argued that his color theories took no account of green, which controlled the effect of complementary colors in a garden.

Donald Beaton, head gardener at Shrubland Park, in Suffolk, in the 1840s considered that any variegated plant would function as a neutral color and proudly described a bed he had planted with verbena and variegated pelargoniums, which a visitor had said looked like ‘shot silk’. He used to complete with John Fleming, head gardener to the Duke of Sutherland at Trentham Park, in Staffordshire, in the design of spectacular bedding schemes.

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They both introduced ribbon or ‘promenade-style’ borders in the same year. Although the designs were nothing if not bright, the colors were restricted. Each border had three continuous lines of color extending its whole length. Beaton described his like this: ‘This first row on each side of the walk is blue, the second yellow and the third on the one side is scarlet and on the other, white’.

Color complexities

Whatever the complexities of color in scientific terms, most gardeners will observe the effects of colors in their own gardens and decide for themselves which colors work in different parts of the garden at different times of day and in different seasons.

Plant a purple-leaved plant in one place and it will catch the afternoon light so that its leaves become a magical stained glass window display; plant it elsewhere and it will never light up in the same way.

Elegant combination of pinkish-yellow and white dahlias

Purple flowers in cascade garden

Sunny garden with red and white flowers

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