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Color Theory in the Garden

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Color Theory in the Garden

Ever wonder what makes one garden look, well, nice, and another garden look fabulous? While there are lots of things that go into creating a successful garden design, color is at the top of the list! How you use color, combine colors, lay colors out…it all adds up to make the difference between pretty good and “uh-MAZING.” Let’s break it down!

What do you mean, “color theory?” Can’t I just use all the colors?

Well, you could in theory, but if you don’t use “all the colors” with a plan in mind, you can run the risk of creating a garden that simply looks scattered and unfocused. Before you choose your color scheme, though, we want you to consider these two questions:

  • What “feel” do I want my garden to have? Exciting? Meditative? Restful? Mysterious? Your color choices will either support or challenge that goal.
  • What colors blend with/complement the exterior of my house? Got a neutral house exterior like white, black, or gray? Most colors will blend with that. Do you have red or salmon brick, or a vivid siding color? You’ll want to plan your garden color more deliberately.

Understanding the Color Wheel

Although it sounds kind of fancy, the color wheel is simply a useful tool in choosing colors and shades of colors that work together rather than clash. We can’t speak for you, but we have zero interest in reinventing the wheel (bad pun totally intended) — somebody somewhere invented this color wheel and it just works.

  1. Monochromatic: Pick a color on the color wheel and use various shades of that hue. Do you love red? Plant dark red, true red, and pink flowers all together. Adore purple? Go for dark purple-black, medium purple, and lavender. You can’t go wrong.
  2. Contrasting: Take a look at the color wheel and choose colors that are on the opposite sides (yellow/purple, blue/orange, pink/yellow-green, etc.). These are “complementary” colors and while they are, indeed, opposites, they feel right together.
  3. Cool & Warm Colors: Reds, oranges, and yellows are what we call “warm” colors, and blues, purples, and greens are “cool” colors. Using colors within their warm or cool category will always go together — and as you’ll read in the next section, they also create a mood.
Color Wheel

Using Color to Solve a Problem or Create a Mood

Okay, here’s the fun stuff! Theory is great, but we want to put it into use, don’t we? We all want our gardens to have a particular look or feel, and most of us have issues in our gardens that we need to address. Color choice goes a long way to achieving both of those goals.

  • Creating appearance of a larger garden: If your garden is small and your goal is to create an impression of a larger or deeper space, there are several ways you can do that with color! Consider using cool colors (purple, blue, green) that recede into the garden, expanding the space in the process. Similarly, you can layer shades of colors to create depth — use darker colors in the back of the bed and gradually lighten up the shades in the middle and front of the bed.
  • Creating appearance of a more intimate garden: It might sound insane to say, “My garden is too big!” because we all want more space, right? But a garden that is fairly large can feel impersonal and not intimate. For gardens like these, reach for warm color like red, yellow, and orange because they pop up and are more visible than cool colors. Warm colors pull your attention closer, creating a garden that appears closer to you.
  • Creating an exciting, energetic garden: Warm colors to the rescue! Think of shades of vibrant orange, yellow, and red, or any of those colors with white. White is a valuable “color” to pair with another in order to make that space buzz.
  • Creating a restful, meditative garden: We love the cool colors here. Purple, lavender, blue, and green are soft and calming, ideal for those spaces intended for meditation, yoga, reading, and relaxing.
  • Creating a sophisticated garden: So many ways to use colors to create sophistication! One of our favorites is to use neutrals like white, gray, and silver. Combine with various shades of green to balance it out and you’re golden. Another way is to plant with dark and moody colors rather than their bright and cheerful counterparts. Love red but want something sexier? Go for wine and burgundy shades. How about artsy purple? Easy — add in some maroon or purple-black flowers or foliage.
  • Creating a fun children’s garden: Stick with the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue.
  • Creating an artistic garden: Use colors in blocks or patterns or arrange colors in a rainbow effect. How about an ombré garden where shades of one color are graduated darkest to lightest? 

Example of a Contrasting Color Scheme:

Example of a Monochromatic Color Scheme:

Color Pitfalls to Avoid

Want to know some of color uses we avoid?

  • Using too much of one shade of a particular color. We see this most often in gardens that have a lot of foliage plants — too often the leaves are all a medium shade of green. It doesn’t matter if you cleverly employ different sizes and textures to drum up interest, an all-medium green garden will be boring. Break it up with dark green, lighter green, and variegated green/white.
  • Using every color and their shades plus white. Oy. This one simply looks overwhelming to most people’s eyes. It appears as if you couldn’t decide, so you chose them all. Remember the rule about accessories (get dressed, look in the mirror, then remove one accessory)? Do that if your tendency is to plant all the colors — take a step back and remove one or two or three.
  • Using lots of scattered colors. You know those “mixed flats” of pansies at the garden center that have purple, yellow, white, maroon and the kitchen sink? There are reasons many garden designers don’t use them. All the colors mixed in together appears like confetti. It’s chaotic and lacks impact. Better to use carefully chosen shades that blend rather than compete.
  • Combining colors that simply don’t “go.” Think baby blue and orange, peach and yellow, lavender and red. Of course, if there’s a will, there’s a way — so if you adore these colors and they make you happy, we say “Go for it!”

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  • Jenny Peterson