University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Perennial Publications : Book of the Month

Color in Garden Design.  Sandra Austin, 1998, Taunton, 165 pp.

Of the few books available just on color in garden design, I find this one of the better ones.  Not just pretty pictures of combinations (although it does have these), this reference is just that, more of a text on color in garden design.  The author is a teacher and practicing landscape designer, a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

The author begins with an overview of color—what it is and isn’t, the various color systems used to describe colors, and what the actual color names mean.  Differences are described between colors produced by light, such as from a prism, and which we see; colors used in printing and on computers; colors created by artists as in mixing paints; and colors as described in various systems such as the RHS color charts and the Munsell system which is related.

The second section is perhaps the key, and one to which the rest of the book refers—the attributes of color which are used to describe colors.  These include hue, value and saturation.   Hue refers to the location of the color on the spectrum or place on various color wheels or systems.  Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color, or hue.  Saturation is the amount of color present, from an almost neutral gray to an almost pure color or hue.  As throughout the book, color photos are used to illustrate such discussions.

The third section begins where most color books begin—with combinations.  First the author explores the effects in the landscape of various colors such as pales, pastels and vivid, as well as the role and effects of background colors.  The latter are often not considered, yet can have a profound effect.  An orange gazania may stand out against green foliage, yet be lost against a see of orange-tan mulch.  Masses of green backgrounds such as from forests, the blue or gray sky, and groundcoverings such as mulch or black compost will impact the color perception of flowers.

Perception or how colors are seen is the next section treated in a general way.  Colors are present with words to describe them in all languages.  After black and white, the words most seen in languages are those for the color red, followed by green and yellow.  Blue and brown are the color words next most commonly seen, with the least seen words being purple, pink, orange and gray.  The various factors affecting color perceptions and descriptions, which using these words vary greatly among a population, include ones such as emotional ties to colors, as well as physical limitations.  Less than half of the population has the ability to finely discriminate among colors.

The aspect of perception treated in more detail is the adjustments your eyes and mind make, depending on other colors just seen or surrounding.  Simultaneous contrast is the influence of other colors surrounding the one you are looking at.  This is commonly seen in garden design, such as red tulips among a sea of blue forget-me-nots.  Successive contrast is the effect caused by colors just seen, and an effect most are not aware of.  Did you know that if you stare at a color for a long period, then suddenly shift your eyes away, your mind adjusts and you will see the complementary color of the object?  This is called the afterimage, and is most easily seen against a white background.  This translates into a garden in designing transitional areas, moving from one area to another.

The third adjustment in your perception of color is color assimilation or the spreading effect.  Small areas of color that are touching appear more alike with less contrast.  To increase the contrast, either increase the area of color (amount of flowers).  Also a small amount of a white flower may make the surrounding colors seem light, a small amount of dark flower tend to make the other surrounding colors seem darker.  The last perception adjustment is color separation—some distance between flowers makes them appear more alike.  This is the reason a color theme garden works, such as a white garden.  Even thought there are various creams and values of white, which side-by-side would be obviously different, when separated by even some green foliage, they appear similar.

In the final section the author treats the various effects of context on color—light, texture, time, visual field, and compositions such as color displays, native gardens and residential gardens.  Those that take pictures may know the effect of light, especially during the time of day, on color.  Early morning and late afternoon sunlight is richer in red, and makes colors appear “warmer”.  Textural effects can be divided into those of surface (fine, coarse) and those of volume.  A plant with fine textured or smooth foliage, or finely cut leaves, when used in a volume may actually appear coarse.  Texture will affect the hue and values of colors.  The smoother the surface, the more light is reflected and the more saturated the color may appear.

Colors will change over time, such as in the life of a flower, starting one color and fading to a different value or even hue as in the lungworts starting blue and fading to pink.  Obviously leaves change color with the seasons with trees such as sugar maples.  Visual field is what you can actually see at one time.  Effects on this are described, either separating areas into “garden rooms” or “borrowing” the surrounding landscape using controlled views.  Keep in mind with the latter that as distances between you and colors increase, the colors will become lighter and grayer.

Although not ripe with examples in the garden, these basics in this book are quite useful when designing and viewing gardens and plant combinations.  They help create a foundation for understanding and appreciating color and our perception of it in the garden.

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