Get Growing: True colors — Navigating the garden’s color wheel

Get Growing: True colors — Navigating the garden’s color wheel

Get Growing: True colors — Navigating the garden’s color wheel

“Everyone knows that red reads in-your-face — and that is a very good place for it.” — Nori Pope

“… the segregation of blue flowers is a mistake. They, more than any others, need the flash of scarlet, the cloud of white, the drift of apricot or buff to kindle them into life.” — Louise Beebe Wilder

“I never met a color I didn’t like.” — Dale Chihuly


As you plan for your garden and its containers this year, it helps to take a breath amid the spring frenzy of planting and think about color. Our response to color is highly personal, not to mention cultural. There are a million associations you might have to colors; does blue and gold remind you of the gym shorts you had to wear in high school, a sunlit beach or a Provencal platter?

Accordingly, choosing colors for your garden can definitely be overwhelming, as anyone who has faced off with an interior paint deck knows. The good news is there are ways to pare down your choices, and, if you can’t make up your mind, like me, ways to expand your options.

The first decision is pretty easy: warm or cool? Warm colors invigorate; cool tones soothe. You can combine the two, but your combo should clearly favor one over the other, say a 70/30 percent split.

Nothing could be simpler than monochromatic themes. White gardens that shine even at night are having a moment, but you can pick your favorite color and add complementary foliage accents, for instance, blue with chartreuse or silver foliage.

Unless you are a color virtuoso, you will get the best effect with simpler combinations of two or three colors plus green. Green is a color. Think of a spring forest exploding in countless shades, a French-style topiary-fest, or a Zen moss garden. With one color, the texture becomes the star.

Sticking to a palette is hard, but the results will look so professional you will amaze yourself.

Guess what? You don’t have to make the whole garden a single palette. Separated into sections, you can offer several combinations without it turning into a free-for-all.

Containers are the Etch-a-Sketch of gardens — you can redo them as often as you like, from every few years to seasonally, and indulge in a new palette each time.

For a starting point, look at the colors of your house and the surrounding elements, like your neighbor’s purple house. Build off those. The color wheel can help. There is even a gardener’s color wheel made by the Color Wheel Company,, which shows more natural plant-based colors.

Colors opposite each other on the wheel offer the boldest, most exciting contrasts. To make that purple sing, throw in some yellow — purple’s complement directly opposite on the wheel — against it. Or if you’d rather play down the eggplant-colored house, go with analogous colors next to purple on the wheel or dark neutrals like brown or burgundy.

Don’t forget the changeable supporting cast; with a paint can or a new tablecloth, your patio set and accessories can sport a whole new vibe in a day.

When looking for your plants, your eye is the best judge. If the color really matters, don’t rely on names, descriptions or online photos alone — even plant tags photos can mislead, based on the print quality.

Whatever the plant marketers may say, there are precious few true blues in the plant world, such as the finicky Himalayan blue poppy. Like the adjective “dwarf” for a 12-foot-tall apple tree, calling a plant blue may be relative. For example, the breeders are saying this is as blue as we can find without dyeing it. “Veichenblau” rose, known as “The Blue Rose,” is a lovely and mutable dusky violet. I love geranium “Calliope Orange,” but next to the orange Ranunculus that miraculously overwintered in my window box, it looks cherry red.

The best situation is to compare it next to your other plants before planting, at the nursery or at home because colors reflect on each other. The eye searches out differences, so pairing a cool red and a warm one, like a pale pink cherry tree next to a fuchsia azalea makes you wince.

Also, somehow looking at a color makes you see its complement, so placing blue next to a warm yellow will turn the yellow orange and the blue bluer. I have brought a zipper bag of leaves of the main players with me to the nursery, just like swatches from throw pillows.

There are as many “rules” as there are opinionated gardeners. If you can manage to keep it simple and repeat strong color themes, it will look great. I’m a fan of using long waves of color, repeating the same color or plant to create rhythm.

If you absolutely must have a riot of color, there is a way to do that, too. Pick one plant, like tulips, dahlias or cosmos, in a circus of hues, and corral them in a neat evergreen border.

When all else fails, if it looks flat, add lime — it makes everything look better.