By Dr. Leonard Perry
As every gardener would agree, flowers provide color in the landscape. But it is an understanding of color and its uses that allows gardeners to make the most of their flowerbeds and to achieve pleasing results. Looking at plants as a painter (as the famous Monet did) isn’t that complex, and will give you a basic understanding of color.
Most people are familiar with the artists’ color wheel, with the six main colors of the spokes or pie slices of the circle. The three primary colors are red, yellow and blue. Combine these, and you get the colors in between—the secondary colors. So red and yellow make orange, yellow and blue make green, and blue and red make purple. Then, of course, you can mix various combinations of the basic six to get all the other colors.
Add black to these six basic colors and you have “shades” of a color. Add white to these six basic colors, and you have “tints” of a color, including the popular pastels. Examples of this for red would be the dark red of “Mahogany” peony, or the pink of “Bubblegum” petunia.
Color selection can make a flowerbed appear close or distant. A distant planting of bright colors will appear closer if softer shades of the same color are used near the viewer. Using softer colors at a distance, and strong colors near the viewer, reverses the effect. Such use of color was one of the techniques of the famous woman landscape architect early in the last century, Marian Cruger Coffin. An example of her use of flower colors can be seen today at the King’s Garden at Fort Ticonderoga in New York State.
Colors can impart a sense of temperature. Red, orange, and yellow are considered warm colors. When used on a sunny patio, they give a sense of warmth. The cool colors are blues, purples, and greens. Use them in shady areas, and they make the shade seem even cooler. Most gardens should have no more than about 10 to 15 percent of really warm or hot colors for best design, otherwise it may look too busy with the eye not knowing where to look next.
Be careful where you place bright colors, as they attract attention. Bright red flowers planted near the front door draw the attention of visitors and guide them to the door. The same red flowers planted where garbage cans are stored will draw attention there.
Use one or two compatible colors throughout the landscape to develop a relaxing mood. Pastel or weak colors work better than strong vivid colors for this purpose.
Keep in mind that the main color of gardens and landscapes is green, a cool color. Often, the effect of cool colors can come mainly from foliage and lawns and leaves of woody plants. These form the “background” of landscapes.
Flower colors should be compatible. Colors that clash can be used in the same bed if they are widely separated. In established perennial gardens, dilute problem color combinations with white or pale yellow flowers interplanted between them.
White draws more attention than even the warm colors, so use it sparingly. Use it to contrast with other colors, to separate colors from one another, or just by itself. Examples of the latter are white gardens and moon gardens—those that show up at night in moonlight or with low lighting. White—either flowers or white variegated foliage—also is good to use in shade to brighten up the area. Silvery leaves, as with some Siberian bugloss, does this as well.
When selecting flowers for planting near the house, you may not want to plant flowers whose colors clash with the house color. You may want to match flower colors to the color of trim and accents. For plantings of flowers viewed from a particular room, you may want to repeat colors used in the room decor.
Follow these basics when choosing flowers for your garden, and you’re on your way to good design. As with any rules and principles, there are exceptions, and you can have attractive designs with striking effects such as a riot of mainly warm colors, as long as this is the effect you are trying to achieve. Consider, too, the color of the foliage and how it will look in your garden.
Dr. Leonard Perry is a horticulture professor at University of Vermont.