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Tip of the Week: Make your garden a mood-setter

The plants a gardener chooses, and the way they are arranged together, affect the mood of a garden.
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The plants a gardener chooses, and the way they are arranged together, affect the mood of a garden. By making definite but limited color choices, it is possible to create a range of moods, and mastering the art of exploiting color to provide an aura of calm, subtlety, excitement, drama or sophistication enriches every gardener’s experience. Check out these simple tips for making your garden the mood-setter that you so desire.


Monks of old realized that an enclosed garden with a cloister around it was the perfect place for calm reflection. Making a cloister may not be a reality for all of us, but creating a sense of enclosure accompanied by harmonious plantings will encourage a calming sensation.

1. Use harmonious, rather than contrasting colors.
Don’t feel like “harmonious” means restricting your colors to only whites. There are hot, vibrant harmonies as well as soothing, tranquil ones. Naturally though, those composed largely of blues and other cool colors with blue in their makeup will produce the most restful harmony.

2. Feel enclosed. These types of spaces convey a feeling of sanctuary from the outside world and can even help muffle noises from that outer world. Surround the area in some way with a hedge or fence if you can. A trellis, painted in your harmonious color scheme, can help transform a portion of your garden into a calm retreat.

3. Build atmosphere. A fountain or the sound of running water will only add to the calming mood. The soft clicking of bamboo boxes or wind chimes can help too. Or, perhaps you prefer the silence as to connect with the sounds of nature, such as rustling leaves across a stone pathway. Figure out what it is you are seeking in your sanctuary. Be aware of how furniture, containers, doors and gates contribute to the overall atmosphere.

Exciting, vibrant

Playing safe with color doesn’t always pay for everyone. The more restful hues that are calming to some may be dull to others. Throw caution to the wind now and then and experiment with bold, loud color to produce a mood that stimulates the senses rather than soothes.

1. The bold and the beautiful. When trying to create a mood of excitement, nothing beats the brightest reds, oranges and yellows that together shout hot and vibrant. These colors will definitely overpower more muted and cooler plants, so it is best to confine plants of such colors to their own calmer area. See “calm” above.

2. Add the right foliage. When creating hot plantings, it is vital to achieve balance between color and foliage, bearing in mind that a mixture of highly charged colors needs an almost equal mass of foliage. Incorporate big and dramatic leaves with varying shapes and textures to keep the bold excitement.


Plantings of rich, sultry colors capture attention in the same was as a magnetic oil painting. Capture that same intensity in your garden by incorporating a dramatic color scheme.

1. Get a standout color combo. Dark blues, reds, indigo, violet, red-browns, copper, bronze and burnt gold are all intense colors individually, yet together they seem to coalesce into a mélange in which no one color stands out but nevertheless has the power to hold us enthralled. Stay away from pastels and lighter colors, such as white and yellow, which draw the eye too much.

2. Dramatic schemes can be emphasized by shrubs. Include flowering shrubs. By selecting carefully, it is possible to have attractive leaves, flowers and brilliant autumn color, thus prolonging the interest of the scheme beyond the flowering period of the herbaceous plants.

3. Keep the dramatic effect alive. Include plants with impressive foliage. Tall, towering spires are always impressive, like that in Delphinium. Plantings of deep, sultry colors are at their best in summer and early fall, but prolong the drama by not cutting the plants down as winter approaches. Skeletons of grasses and perennials gilded with frost on a cold winter’s day can be just as spellbinding as a planting in high summer.


The word for “subtle” comes from the Latin subtilis, meaning fine and delicate. Interestingly, this is the mood of many contemporary gardens, which are often designed to be as naturalistic and restrained as possible. If a naturalistic planting is not for you, there are a number of other ways to produce a subtle mood within the garden.

1. Keep it simple. Restricting plants to a few choice specimens and then arranging them with great precision will produce a subtle, low-key effect—which is a technique that the Japanese have perfected.

2. Bring out the muted colors. Dedicate a certain area of the garden to flowers that are understated and muted in color. These are particularly suited to shady areas. Plantings of a single color in pastel shades, in which there are fine graduations of tone and shade, will create a subtle mood, too.

3. Create form and texture. Using greens, like ferns, create a soft, yet subtle background. Try even grouping greens together.


Sophistication is the antithesis of naturalness. But, sophistication comes in many guises.

1. Go green, literally. While a sophisticated look hosts an array of colors for the supporting roles, the lead goes to green. So perhaps the lesson for creating a sophisticated mood is that less is more and green handled carefully can be the epitome of chic.

2. The clipped evergreen hedge—try Taxus baccata (USDA Zones 6–7)—is the little black dress of a formal garden. Topiary is another good way of introducing some distinction to a garden.

3. Less is more. Simple, clean-cut features will keep the look sophisticated. Try a rectangular pool with a paved surround, a garden area enclosed by a trellis painted in a neutral color, areas ended with low hedges or an attractive arbor cloaked with climbers.

Adapted from the
Horticulture Gardener's Guide to Planting for Color by Susan Chivers. Learn more about this book.