University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
IN THE GARDEN
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
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
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
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 home 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 outside
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.
Return to Perry's Perennial