Pigments & Plants

Color is a powerful force in the garden. It can soothe, excite, be restful, imbue energy, or make a space feel larger or smaller. Armed with a little knowledge and the willingness to engage in trial and error, you can create color combinations that set the exact tone you want in your private garden paradise.

HARMONIZE WITH COLOR COUSINSHues next to each other on the color wheel, such as blue and violet, take on the properties of each other and blend. These monochromatic color schemes are generally most successful when you vary the flowers’ scales and textures. Sometimes, monochromatic color theme gardens can go too far. The early-twentieth-century British garden maven Gertrude Jekyll wrote, “. . . people will sometimes spoil some garden project for the sake of a word. For instance a blue garden, for beauty’s sake, may be hungering for a group of white lilies, or something of the palest lemon-yellow, but is not allowed to have it because it is called the blue garden, and there must be no other flowers.” 

INSPIRED COMBINATIONS. Complementary colors make a strong statement. Vincent van Gogh poetically described his love of color complements in an 1888 letter to his sister, Wilhelmina, “...there are colors which cause each other to shine brilliantly, which form a couple, which complete each other like man and woman.” He suggested combining cornflowers, white chrysanthemums, and marigolds for a motif in blue and orange; heliotrope and yellow roses for a lilac and yellow motif; and poppies or red geraniums set among green leaves for a red and green combination. British plantsman Christopher Lloyd encouraged the bold use of color to create excitement, an element he believed was essential to successful gardening. “Two colors may shout at each other,” he wrote, “but they are shouting for joy.” He advocated using color contrasts because these have the most “pop.” Lloyd suggested combining the purple flowering Verbena bonariensis with a red dahlia such as ‘Grenadier,’ adding the reddish foliage of Canna indica ‘Purpurea’ for further emphasis. Blue and yellow is another classic contrast. Lloyd combinedVerbena bonariensis with the yellow-green flowers of Patrinia scabiosifolia, and placed blue flowering Iris siberica against the chartreuse yellow foliage of Bowles sedge (Carex elata ‘Aurea’).  

FOOL THE EYE WITH COLOR"Illusion is everything in a garden," opined San Diego, California landscape designer W.F. Sinjen. With a little good-natured trompe l'oeil, you can fool your eye into believing that the tiniest of gardens is spacious—or at least less cramped. Color is one of the tools landscape designers use to help pull off this trick.
Generally, warm colors such as yellow and red tend to come forward, and pastels and cool colors tend to recede. To visually enlarge your garden, put cool colors at the back, making it seem even farther away. Alternatively, you can make a large garden appear more intimate with hot tropical colors such as red and orange. 

A delicate spray of white flowers, such as baby’s breath or Crambe cordifolia can create a sensation of shimmer in the garden, rather like white fairy lights strung in a tree. Beware: bold clumps of white tend to punch holes in the design, leaving a visual void. Use white to make colors appear brighter, giving them definition. In his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote, “Every petal of blue lupine is edged with white, so that a field of lupines is more blue than you can imagine.”Gray foliage helps to link disparate colors; however, not just any gray will work. Silvery grays tend to be too show-stopping, grabbing all the attention rather than being a silent partner. But blue-gray and plain gray are highly useful for bringing cohesion between two conflicting colors and transitioning from one color scheme to another. Gray is also excellent to calm glare or harsh sunlight. Seeing flowering plants side by side is a huge help in finding the right combinations. Walk around the garden with a newly purchased plant to find the right setting. At the garden center, place flowering plants next to each other to find the color and texture combinations that make your heart sing. Placing plants for the best color combinations is a fine art that often relies on trial and error. But you can’t go wrong by using your favorite color combinations to put a personal stamp on your garden. If you like it, it’s right. 

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