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Color Tricks That Make The Garden

By Heide Ludwig,  R.G.E.

MNLA Certified Nursery and

Landscape Professional, Retired

Recent storms made me think about color in the garden. There have been rainbows spotted after certain storms. A rainbow is light that is broken down by the prismatic action of the sun shining through the raindrops.  If you put all those colors together, you get white.

White is the last color to fade at night, and that is why white gardens are popular when placed where they can be seen as the light fades from dusk into night.

Black is the absence of color. It absorbs light and doesn't reflect it back to our eyes. It is a well-known theater trick that if you do not want something to show, you paint it black. It tricks the eye into believing that something is not there. That is why the stage is painted black, as well as the top of the stage sets. On this black canvas, the set colors pop!

Color plays an important part in our lives, whether we realize it or not. It is well documented that color can evoke certain moods. When planning your gardens, containers or landscape, color is an important factor in good garden design. Color is considered one of the backbones of the landscaping elements.

Color can be described as hot, cool, or neutral.  We combine colors to create moods in the landscape.  Reds and oranges are considered hot colors while purples, blues, lavenders are considered cool colors.

Reds and oranges are perceived as warm and inviting. That is why you might consider incorporating these colors close to the front step. Try planting some yellow flowers on the edge of steps. People tend to pay special notice to this color, and will look down and notice the steps.  Red and orange tend to bring things closer which is another trick they play on the eye. If you have a long expanse, and you want to shorten it, try using reds, oranges, or vivid pinks to make it appear closer than it really is. Think of a Red Prince Weigela shrub. When it blooms, people really notice it because of the red of the flower, despite the fact that the flowers are not in large groups and are surrounded by the green of the leaves.  Peonies are another good example of this color principle. As I look out my window, it is the deep red and the deep pink that I notice immediately.

Conversely, if you want something to appear further away and add some depth to a narrow landscape, try using pastels in shades of lavenders and pinks. Try putting the lighter and paler shades in areas that you use as a people-gathering spot, such as a deck or porch. Lighter colors are perceived as mellow.  They tend to put people in a more relaxing mood. Were you aware that people tend to try to smell a pink flower over any other color in a bouquet? 

Knowing your color wheel will help you plan your garden, whether it is a large area or something as simple as a container. We all learned in art class that red, yellow and blue are the primary colors. When we combine two of those colors, we get the secondary colors of green, orange and purple. Colors that come between those secondary colors are referred to as tertiary. Choosing flowers that come from one section of those tertiary colors are called monochromatic. Tertiary colors across from each other on the color wheel are considered contrast. Good examples of contrasting colors are blue and orange, red and green, and yellow and purple.

I had a coworker who had a very good eye for combining color. She could combine certain blooms that had excellent eye appeal. I could tell that she understood the principles of color. I knew that the choices went together very well, but I did not understand how until I purchased a color wheel for quilting. Yes, even in quilting color matters. It is the combination of dark, light, and neutral fabrics that make or break the quilt. It is the same in landscaping. You need the neutrals to give your eye a place to rest. It is balance with colors that you are trying to create.

To add some quick color to your garden beds or landscape, try using some hanging baskets. Remove the hangers and place around bare spots to fill in while shrub blooms fade and perennials take over. Annuals are a great way to add color, and there are so many color, choices both for sun and shade.

Color is fun to play with, and I encourage you to give some thought to the moods you are trying to create when planting your containers, your garden bed, or your landscape. Gardens are here to be enjoyed by casual observers, as well as yourself. Color plays a vital role in the garden. Whether you realize it or not, your visual sense is constantly at work. It is always sending back messages to the brain.

Since this sense is the most affected by its surroundings, you might as well give the eye something appealing to look at.


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