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Combining and Playing with Color in Garden Design



There may be only 12 colors on the color wheel, but blending and shading can create countless options in nature and in your garden design. Hue, intensity and value are the keys to taking a garden from pleasing to artful. They guide the eye and tighten the focus.

Hue: Pure Color

  • Very Rarely occurs in nature, but serves as a reference point

Intensity: The Potency or Saturation of Color

  • Full Strength: undiluted hue
  • Tint: hues lightened with the addition of white
  • Shade: hues darkened with the addition of black
  • Tone: a color dulled by gray
  • Full strength hues pull the eye and work well at a distance or as an accent
  • Tints can become washed out in full sun
  • Tints and tones recede at a distance

Value: The Lightness or Darkness of a Color

  • Yellow has the lowest value (Except for white, which is technically without color)
  • Violet has the highest value (Except for black, which is technically all colors)
  • The eye is drawn to the lightest value first. Crucial to consider in monochromatic gardens.
  • Guide the eye with light values and use darker values as contrast and focal points. (That’s why using a green hedge behind a flower border works to draw the eye toward the darker flowers.
  • Also using evergreens and structure and bones in the garden.)
  • To get a strong feel for the values of the colors in your garden, look at it in B&W.

Temperature: The Degree of Warmth of a Color

  • You’ve probably heard colors referred to as either hot or cold. Temperature is less cut and dry
  • than the above terms. It tends to be something you sense more than quantify. Red, Yellow &
  • Orange are considered warm colors. Green, Blue and Violet are considered cool.

However, temperature can be altered by blending colors. Add some red to violet and you get a considerably warmer color.


Keep in mind that the perception of color varies from person to person and can greatly be affected by surroundings.
  • Lighting: Light changes the saturation of color. Red turns dull at twilight while white begins to glow.
  • Surface Texture: The texture of a leaf or flower will affect how the light hits it and therefore how the color is perceived. The smoother the surface, the more light is reflected and the more saturated the color appears.
  • Proximity: Colors loose their definition at a distance. A monochromatic garden can turn into a blur. Conversely, too much contrast close up confuses the eye and makes for an unsettling garden.
  • Color Interactions: Just putting a contrasting color next to a flower will change the way we see its color. Gray can muddy true reds. Violet can become hotter next to a vivid orange.
  • Age: Colors change as plants mature. Sometimes the color will change entirely. This is not so much a matter of perception, but it does need to be kept in mind when planing a design.
  • Season: Nature changes her pallette as the year progresses: spring pastels, summer vibrants, fall jewel tones. It’s only fair that the gardener should have the same prerogative. This is where choosing plants for a succession of bloom is paramount.

Combining color well is a matter of trial and error. If you’d like to experiment on a small scale, you can start as simply as putting together a bouquet. Containers are a colorists best friend. You can test combinations in a pot and even move the pot around your garden to further explore.

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