Living Colors

Combining hues skillfully lies at the heart of garden design


WORKING WITH LIVING PLANTS CAN, AT TIMES, be more complicated than combining colors of stagnant objects for the home or wardrobe. Not only are colors affected, among other things, by the constantly changing light and weather, but the colors on a plant can change from the time the plant emerges, to when it is in bud, to when it is flowering and on through its decline. And everywhere there is an inescapable context of green. Thought must also be given to form, texture, repetition, balance, and contrast, besides the endless choices of colors.

Where does one begin? How do you choose color themes? I get ideas by visiting gardens and noting which colors move me. I often review slides I’ve taken at other gardens, and use colored pencils to sketch on paper the colors that were used in an appealing combination or vignette. This really gets the creative juices flowing. Art books, tapestries, fabrics, and, of course, nature—all are excellent sources of inspiration. Remember, the style, size, and situation of the garden may dictate color choices or when certain colors will predominate. The color itself may dictate where and how it is used. And our own attitudes toward color may change with the seasons. Some people feel that soft pinks are a suitable spring color but find them offensive in the autumn, when they yearn for the rich saturated shades naturally associated with that season.

You can vary the color scheme of a garden or a section of the garden in different seasons. You may want to focus on soothing blues in spring, exploding yellows in summer, and muted oranges in autumn. Or spring may include a variety of colors, while the summer theme is limited to fewer colors. Plants with foliage in blues and purples, such as Helictotrichon sempervirens ‘Saphirsprudel’ or Heuchera ‘Velvet Night’ could be used as the unifying link in all seasons.

You can always test color choices by starting with your chosen theme in container plantings or in a small area of the garden, using only annuals. It’s a great way to ease into a color decision and to clarify your personal preferences. Another very simple approach to checking colors is to cut a collection of plants, place them together in a bunch or in a trug basket (one that is fairly flat and wide), and observe their association together. If you don’t want to create a whole new garden, consider rearranging plants in an existing border to concentrate a color theme.

Colors can be combined in the garden in innumerable ways. Color schemes can be monochromatic, analogous (harmonious), complementary (contrasting), or polychromatic, to name just a few.

Although color in nature is vastly more complex than the limited number of hues shown in a color wheel, still, this admittedly artifical arrangement can be useful in determining color relationships. For example, analagous schemes involve a cluster of three or four adjacent colors. Complementary schemes use colors that are directly opposite each other. Triadic schemes involve any three colors that form an equilateral triangle.

MONOCHROMATIC schemes incorporate shades, tints, and tones of a single pure hue, such as violet (purple). Using a limited color palette, particularly a monochromatic one, helps to simplify the design process by reducing the number of variables and is an effective and rewarding way to design combinations.

A key advantage of this approach to color is that it focuses attention on the details and subtleties of a design. Structure and rhythm of a planting are emphasized. Plant form and the textures of leaf, stem, flower, and fruit are more easily appreciated. A design that is simple and cohesive in terms of color can also convey an air of sophistication.

With a monochromatic scheme, the scene is less distracting, since the eye doesn’t need to constantly refocus on everchanging color. Shifts in light deepen the mystery of a monochromatic scheme’s elegance.

Your monochromatic scheme can be accomplished in different ways. Perhaps you want to focus predominantly on tints of the color and use shades of the color for accent. You may want to start with tints of the color and build to shades of the color as you move down the border and then progress back to tints. You may decide that what will work best in your setting is mostly shades, with tints in moderation. Many design techniques must be incorporated to bring all the tints, shades, and tones together in a unified fashion. You may want to consider trying two or more monochromatic color schemes together with the use of analogous colors. Varying shades of green also make excellent transitional colors, since green is present in almost all plants. Of course, the monochromatic scheme could itself be green, but most monochromatic schemes or limited color schemes are not truly, totally, the chosen color alone—they always include green.

Developing monochromatic color schemes can take you to a new level of design and pleasure in your garden. As I’ve explored the subtle beauty of varying tints, tones, and shades of a single color, I’ve found both solace and excitement in discovering that less is more.

? ANALOGOUS, or harmonious, schemes use predominantly two or three colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel, such as red, orange, and yellow. You can start anywhere on the wheel and go forward or backward. The eye does not need to refocus when related colors are used. Harmonious schemes, in the strictest sense of the word, are created when colors are related by a shared hue. For example, orange, yellow, and yellowish green are truly harmonious as they all share yellow as a parent color; blue-green, blue-violet, and violet have blue as a common parent color. The best combinations will be with lighter light colors and darker dark colors; for example, with the violet and red, tint the red to pink, which blends nicely with any shade of violet, rather than lightening the violet into pale lavender, which doesn’t work as well with purer reds. Rarely are we simply combining the pure hues of colors.

Remember, we can decrease a color’s brightness by surrounding it with analogous colors. This seems to have the effect of making gentle transitions between contrasts. Some of my favorite garden designers have used harmonious schemes in their gardens. Color combinations such as pinks, maroons, and purples, or grays, blues, and purples are stunning. Warmer notes of gold, yellow, and green also work beautifully.

? COMPLEMENTARY, or contrasting, schemes focus on two colors opposite one another on the color wheel, such as blue and orange. Again, this approach requires skill. Too much contrast through a border creates confusion, forcing the eyes to refocus constantly. To avoid too many intense contrasts, which would be jarring and unsettling, just the right shades, tints, and tones of the colors must be chosen. Keep in mind, some of the best combinations are between plants that have one element in common and one in contrast, be it related to color, texture, or form. Playing with subtle differences in foliage color is an effective approach for this scheme.

Using contrasting colors in an analogous color scheme is an extremely effective way to cause the eye to stop, thus creating a focal point. Try this in a border, to direct the eye and create a pause in an area that may include less-brilliant plants that you nevertheless want to highlight. Remember, you can have two-thirds of one color juxtaposed with one-third of its contrasting color, as in monochromatic schemes. Yellow and purple foliage are a wonderful contrast but shouldn’t be overdone; black, purple, and gold is really cool—figuratively—but again, in moderation.

A split complementary scheme combines analogous and complementary colors. In the approach I prefer, any three adjacent colors (primary, secondary, or tertiary) can be used, plus the complement of the middle hue—for example, blue-violet, violet, red-violet, and violet’s complement, yellow. Another approach is to use only three colors: a color plus two colors on either side of its complement; for example, green (whose complement is red), red-violet, and red-orange.

? A POLYCHROMATIC scheme includes a little of every color. Often this is what people want, particularly if space is a consideration and they are reluctant to limit their color choices. Polychromatic schemes appeal to people who don’t care for a more disciplined approach to color; they want less discipline in their lives, particularly in their gardens. Color riot, parti-colored, motley—whatever you want to call it, it can be crazy or controlled. All the issues we have been discussing—combining different values, use of repetition and contrast, focal points, and so on—need to be considered for optimal effect. Gertrude Jekyll often effectively combined many colors in the border, placing them so that they moved fluidly, without abrupt transitions, from restful blues, greens, and grays to cool creams and whites, into paler colors of yellows and pinks then into the stronger colors of yellows, oranges, and reds, and then back through the softer colors, ending in purples and lilacs. The approaches are endless. You can throw fluidity to the wind, and go crazy with a bit of everything, here and there. Remember: your style should be reflected in your garden. Do whatever makes you happy.

? Another approach to color is TRIADIC harmony. Triadic harmony exists among three colors that are equidistant from each other on the color wheel, such as red, yellow, and blue (be careful to avoid a preschool look with these three!) or green, violet, and orange. This approach gives you more color than some of the other schemes, yet the colors are still harmonious. Using a personalized limited color palette of two or three colors that you like—say pinks and whites, or apricots and plums—is another approach. I knew an artist-gardener who loved chartreuse and red and used this theme very effectively in his garden. In my front border at Hiddenhaven. I use fairly saturated purple and blue flowers (soft blue foliage) for the predominant colors, with unsaturated yellows in the spring, and saturated oranges and reds in the summer as accents. Remember my earlier example of getting a color theme from a single plant? Use your imagination with this and be creative. H

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