Green Thumbs Up: Developing a color scheme for your garden

Suzanne Mahler

Steel-gray skies and damp, dreary weather persisted throughout much of the weekend, but despite the cool, gloomy conditions, many dormant perennials are beginning to show signs of life as April showers and brief glimpses of sunshine beckon them forth from the soft, moist earth.

Throughout the perennial borders, iris, daylilies and primroses have emerged, providing welcome touches of vibrant green foliage alongside clusters of spring-flowering bulbs.

During these early weeks of spring, gardeners seem to welcome every color in the landscape, regardless of their usual color preferences. Having endured nearly six months of stark silhouettes, prolonged snow cover and the drab tints of winter, even the most outrageous color combinations seem acceptable.

These vibrant hues are particularly noticeable due to the minimal quantity of foliage present. In the weeks to come, green leaves will dominate our landscapes, helping to blend and neutralize intensely colored blooms as the growing season progresses. For the present, we yearn for color, and gardeners will be rewarded with each passing day as flowering trees, shrubs, bulbs and perennials paint the landscape with cheerful abandon.

For most of us, color has a profound effect on our everyday lives. We think about color as we choose our daily wardrobe, decorate our homes, or select plants for our gardens.

Photographs of my earliest gardens reflect a haphazard approach to the use of color and design, suggestive of gathering a collection of plants, tossing them into the air, and planting them wherever they landed along the border. While this random mixture of diverse colors created a cheerful display, this arbitrary arrangement appeared spotty and disorganized without a comfortable flow, what designers call “rhythm”.

In recent years, I have become more aware of color relationships, and while most of my gardens still lack a definitive color scheme due to my passionate need to collect every plant, repetition of colors, textures, and forms have resulted in a more cohesive design.

As Sydney Eddison comments in her wonderful book, "The Gardener’s Palette," “everything a gardener needs to know about color is explained right on the color wheel.”

This simple tool, available at almost any art store, demonstrates the relationships of colors, based on the rainbow. Colors adjacent to one another on the wheel share common pigments and are considered analogous colors; when combined in design they create harmony. Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel and produce contrast when used in compositions. “Most effective color schemes are based either on contrast or on harmony.”

For those gardeners who enjoy bold and dramatic designs, there are several ways to achieve this showy outcome. Contrasting color schemes produce excitement and command attention. The most striking contrasts are generated by combining complementary colors from the color wheel, i.e. red and green, orange and blue, and yellow and violet. These hues contain no common pigments and by pairing opposites, each individual color is intensified creating a dramatic effect. A border of predominantly yellow, purple, and white flowers produces a vibrant display.

An exciting picture can also be painted using a harmonious color scheme. This approach uses three or four adjacent colors having one color in common. While harmonious colors present a pleasing, unified design, if the warm colors of red, orange and yellow are planted together, a stimulating portrait results. These vivid colors that we associate with the sun or fire are bold and aggressive and appear to advance.

Similarly, light colors advance due to their greater reflectance, particularly against the natural backdrop of green foliage, dark earth or mulch. Even pastel colors, such as lemon yellow, pink, lavender, peach and pale blue, are light and bright and can produce a dramatic display when planted against a dark background or viewed in shady areas despite our sense that they are soft colors.

Should you prefer to create a restful retreat, the use of rich, saturated, dark colors can help you to achieve this goal. The colors green, blue and violet, in particular, are usually associated with peaceful waters, blue skies, or tranquil settings. They are known as the cool colors for the soothing and calm response they evoke and appear to recede in the landscape producing a serene atmosphere and a greater sense of space.

Similarly, muted colors, many of which contain gray tones and consequently lower color saturation, also serve to create a softer, more restful design. Silver-foliaged plants are known as the peacekeepers of the garden. Their neutral color helps to blend, soften, and unify plantings. Repetition of their soft tones along the expanse of a bright polychromatic border can bring order to an otherwise diverse collection of colors.

Keep in mind that the availability of light plays a major role throughout the day in how we perceive the impact of color in our landscapes.

Just as colors and styles in fashion and home furnishings tend to vary from year to year, so color schemes in our gardens often change as our gardens evolve. Thirty years ago, poppy orange-red, avocado and harvest-gold were the hot colors of home decor, and my gardens reflected that color trend. A pastel palette gradually replaced the fiery theme, but in recent years, we have come full circle as the bright, vibrant, hot colors take center stage once again.

As you envision your gardens in full bloom, consider the emotional impact you would like your plantings to convey. Different combinations of flower and foliage color can be used to create many diverse effects. Success with color in the garden is an acquired art and requires observation and practice.

Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.