As a self-taught artist, I have come to understand how to use color in art and in the garden largely through trial and error, by creating my own share of not so successful paintings as well as planting schemes. But often my failed experiments have been my best teachers.
Now you have the opportunity to learn from my mistakes. Here are 10 color tips that I use that help me to translate ideas that begin on paper into beautiful combinations in the garden.
No. 1 – There are no rules. My motto is if you love the way a color or color combination looks then use it. Discovering your color style is as easy as looking around your home or even in your closet. Start by deciding if you like warm or cool tones then begin looking around for combinations that you find appealing. One of my favorite flower borders was inspired by a piece of antique ticking that I found at a flea market. I selected agastache ‘Fortune’s Blue’, blue balloon flower and creamy white Shasta daisies to mimic the fabric’s blue and cream stripes.
No. 2 – Use your home’s exterior to help guide your color selection. Remember that colors are never viewed in isolation. As you select a color scheme for your garden, take into account other outstanding features in the area. The color of your house, other structures and focal points such as showy plants, garden ornament and furniture can serve as effective starting points. When a room in your house opens directly into the garden use the opportunity to extend the same color theme outdoors.
No. 3 – Create a canvas. Colors come alive when viewed against a backdrop. Be it your house, a fence, or a row of shrubs; find a surface on which to “paint” your flowers. This backdrop unifies the various blooms and foliage much like an interior wall color pulls together all the components in a room. I often choose evergreen hedges and shrubs as a backdrop because green, being the predominant color in the garden, is an excellent neutral.
No. 4 – Colors can be used to create moods or spatial illusions. Colors evoke emotions. A fiery red room feels completely different than one painted in pale blue. Use the emotions of color to match the mood you want to create. Cool colors such as blue and lavender soothe, helping us feel restful and calm, white hot colors such as reds and oranges stir warmth and excitement. Colors also create the illusion of space. Cool colors give a feeling of distance – think about a clear blue sky on an autumn day – while hot colors appear closer. You can make areas seem larger or smaller using the right colors.
No. 5 – For the greatest impact use one color theme per garden room. Although anything goes when it comes to color, combining too many color themes in one space can be jarring. Consider using a range of hues in a single color family with just a touch of a contrasting color to create drama. White or monochromatic themed rooms are also striking. If you don’t have multiple garden rooms you can plant color blocks or a color quilt, as I like to call it. Just be sure to separate each composition with a neutral space so the eye can rest.
No. 6 – Use gray to buffer conflicting colors. As the consummate diplomat in the family of colors, gray mediates among the various personalities of the color wheel. The neutrality of gray makes it a perfect mixer that crosses all color boundaries and brings a level of calm to virtually any situation. Gray foliage plants such as artemisia, lamb’s ear and agave offer a resting place for the eye before moving on to a new color and softens brassy combinations such as pink, orange and red.
No. 7 – The intensity of light affects the appearance of color. Pale colors reflect light while darker hues absorb it. This concept is important when working in specific light conditions or when designing for a particular time of the day. For shade gardens I like to use variegated foliage and flowers that are white, sky blue, lavender or salmon, which sparkle in the dim light. For areas that will be bathed in sunlight I choose rich colors like gold and azure blue, which will not appear washed out in bright light. Evening gardens glow when planted in pastel blooms.
No. 8 – Use dark colors to add depth. Much like a painting, flower borders need a range of color values to add dimension. A mistake that I have made is filling a bed with color that is all the same value, for instance all pastel or all highly saturated hues. The result is flat, and very one dimensional. By adding dark tones such as the almost black blooms of tulip ‘Queen of the Night’ or a midnight blue salvia like ‘Black and Blue’, a spatial illusion is created and the composition becomes much more dynamic.
No. 9 – Be bold and generous with your use of color. Paint your garden home with a wide brush. Whether you choose to use just one color, a blend of complementary hues or a grab bag of all your favorites don’t be shy with the application. Broad sweeps are much more effective than dots and splashes here and there. If your budget is limited sow seeds of easy growing annuals such as cosmos, globe amaranth or cleome for abundant blooms at a bargain price.
No. 10 – Each season is an opportunity to refresh your color scheme. As one season transitions into another the colors that dominate the landscape shift as well. The browns and grays of winter give way to a pastel spring. Summer’s greens, blues and yellows become the super saturated colors of fall. Even regions where seasonal changes are subtle the passage is visible in the slant of sunlight or feel of the air. This helping hand from Mother Nature offers you the opportunity to revamp the colors in your garden. Plant shrubs, trees and perennials that shine in a specific season and then bolster their colors with companion plants. For instance, if there is an explosion of pink from a flowering crabapple in your garden, the surrounding beds can be accented with drifts of pink snapdragons or magenta tulips to complement the color.