What is the first thing you think of when you want to bring color into your garden? Is it the hottest new plant? Would a hot pink or mellow yellow container brighten up your space? Is a new piece of garden art just the thing to draw your eye to or away from an area? All of these and more can bring color to a garden. Color, however, is not just picking a plant, container or accessory. Think about the mood that you want to create. Is your garden a private retreat where you escape? Is it the setting of glorious family gatherings? Do you entertain during the day or in the evening?
Bright, warm colors (red, orange, yellow) create excitement and draw attention. By bringing the eye forward, bright colors can help to minimize large spaces. They say, “It’s Party Time!” Plants in bright colors include Paeonia suffruticosa (tree Peony), Celosia, Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan), Narcissus and more. The intense orange, red and yellow of fall foliage always bring a last burst of cheer before the less colorful winter in northern climates.
Dark or cooler colors (blue, purple, green) provide a more relaxed atmosphere and can create a quiet sanctuary. They make small areas seem larger by sending the eye to the back. They say, “Put on some soft music and enjoy a glass of wine and some good conversation.” Cool color plants include Viola tricolor (Pansy), Ipomoea purpurea (Morning Glory), many Hosta, Ocimum basilicum 'Pourpre' (Purple Basil), Tulipa and the list could go on forever. Plants with deep red and purple fruit provide this color palette into the fall and winter.
In addition to thinking of the mood that color can impart in your garden, think of a theme you might want to follow. A monochromatic theme of red, pink and burgundy might be exciting but in a hot climate, it could be overwhelming. However, a garden of white and gray is very calming, cooling and will pop during the evening.
When putting together color combinations, a color wheel is indispensible. This simple tool helps to choose colors that contrast and coordinate with each other. Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel: red-orange, orange-yellow, yellow-green, green-blue, blue-violet and violet-red. An analogous theme for a garden or container could be red and orange Zinnia or blue and green Hosta. Complementary colors are across from each other on the color wheel: red-green, orange-blue, yellow-violet. Some plants even have complementary colors within themselves like some of the newer red-green Coleus. A planting of orange Tulipa over a sea of blue Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) is a perfect example of complementary design. There are many other combinations including the wonderful mishmash of a lively cottage garden or “collectors” garden with a bit of everything. In addition to color combinations, contrast comes with variegated plants, fruits that change color as they mature and even just putting a pop of white into the landscape.
It is also helpful to think about what is behind your garden. A festive cottage garden may look lovely in front of an older home or one with neutral siding, but the same garden may seem out of place next to a sleek modern house in a desert climate or a house painted bright orange. There would be too much competition for the eye to settle on one thing. In contrast, a garden of cactus, agave and palm trees not only would have difficulty growing in northern climates; it would appear out of place in front of an old Victorian home.
Playing with color in our gardens can be challenging but is also fun. The beauty of a garden is that it is easily changed. If you need a quick pop of color, add a container or piece of garden art into a spot. If a combination does not work, dig out the plant and try again. The joy of gardening is experimenting and having fun. Go have some fun and play outside!