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Ten Landscape Color Secrets

professional tips for color in the landscapeWhat secrets do profession landscape designers use when it comes to colors? Here are ten bits of coloring wisdom that work.

There are lots of color combinations and harmonies you can try in your landscape designs. Color can excite or calm. It can pull together the design into a cohesive whole or provide breaks in a disparate and clashing set of schemes. Landscape color has the added dimension of time. Timing your plant combinations to bloom in concert and show off your design expertise is the final detail that makes color in the garden a delightful challenge. What secrets do professional landscape designers use when it comes to colors? Follow the ten steps below to discover the top ten bits of coloring wisdom that works for the pros.

Landscape Pro Tip #1 Make Your Own Color Wheel

If you haven’t used one of these before, you need to try it, at least in your early design work. Color wheels can be found in any art supply store, but a better wheel would be one you make using chips at a paint store. Pick only chips you find naturally outdoors.

You can mix colors opposing each other on a color wheel for a pleasant, contrasting display. Use shades of only one color to create a sophisticated, monochromatic color scheme. Try different types of color harmonies. Analogous schemes use colors near each other on the color wheel, and contrasting or complimentary schemes mix opposites. When combining different colors, try to let one color dominate the scheme and the other act as an accent.  That way, the colors don't fight for attention.

Landscape Pro Tip # 2 Green Is Always One of the Colors of the Landscape

One of the most easily forgotten facts about garden color schemes is that they always include green. When deciding on color combinations, keep green in mind. Flowers always come with foliage, and that foliage color must be accounted for in the design. Complicating matters is the fact that there are so very many types of foliage greens. There are bronze greens, red greens, chartreuse greens, olive greens, blue greens, and grey greens. There are also several types of pure green...grass greens, clear greens, dark greens, and pale greens. Natural green colors are always in good taste.

Landscape Pro Tip # 3 Neutrals Can Be Used to Separate Clashing Colors

Garden colors can be used to both blend and separate colors to their best advantage. A natural white helps calm the noise. Blues can act as a neutral buffer between clashing colors in the same way white does. Bronze foliage can, too. This is handy to know if you're short on acreage and must force all your garden colors to live together in harmony in close quarters. White azaleas can be used to separate masses of fuchsia azaleas from masses of scarlet azaleas. The green-grey foliage of Artemesia can be used to unify a bed of diverse colors by repeating plant masses throughout the bed. Blue salvias can be used to separate harsher orange-yellows from lemon-yellows in a line of perennials.

The bronze-red foliage of plants like Loropetalums works well in orange-red combinations as well as chartreuse. It also works with rosy pinks and blues. Bronze-red can be used to make a seamless transition from cool color combinations to warm combinations. When you discover plants colored with handy crossover or transitional qualities, stock up on them and use them liberally throughout a mixed border. They will tie together diverse combinations, even a small garden.

Landscape Pro Tip #4 Use Light Colors to Brighten the Dark

White and other light colors can be used to brighten up shady areas. They are useful in extending the enjoyment of plant beds beyond sunset, acting as natural lighting during the twilight hours. The tiniest amount of available light is captured by white or pale yellow, pale pink or chartreuse blooms. They create a lovely evening glow.

Landscape Pro Tip #5 You Can Combine Any Color with the Same Intensity

Normally, the color police would frown on combining orange with red or red with pink, but almost any combination of colors works well if the colors share the same intensity of hue. That's why intense red and orange and fuchsia 'Cut and Come Again' Zinnias look great together. That's why pale apricot, shell pink, and pale rose Impatiens mixes are pleasing to the eye. Intensity is the key ingredient that can pull together shocking color combinations.

Landscape Pro Tip #6 Use Light Colors to Contrast with Blues and Purples

Dark blues and purples are fairly insignificant unless they are placed close to light colors. The beautiful deep blue of Salvias is invisible without some bright silver foliage or strong white floral accent to pull the bluish tones to the foreground. Purple Liatris needs a bright yellow partner to be seen. Blues and purples need contrasting companions to be effective. Without a lighter, contrasting color, they are swallowed up by the surrounding green.

Landscape Pro Tip #7 Repeating Colors Intensify All—Color Echoes

Repetition of the same color makes each instance of that color more effective and intentional-looking. Orange Tiger Cannas with orange foliage stripes placed behind orange Roses with orange Zinnias makes the orange coloring of all three stand out. Be bold with your color echoes. These plantings cause people to slow down in their cars on main thoroughfares to get a closer look! They are very popular and well worth the effort of creating.

It's hard to remember when purchasing plants exactly which ones bloom at the same time. It’s hard to repeat matching bloom colors from memory. You can gather blooms and foliage in various areas of your gardenfrom from this year’s plants that look wonderful together. Take photographs of your bouquets to document them. The pictures preserve the moment so that you can go back later, record what works, and plant the perfect combinations closely together in the new plant beds.

Landscape Pro Tip #8 Not All Garden Yellows and Whites Are the Same

There aredifferent types of whites and yellows in the garden. It is best not to mix them. They aren't harmonious in combination. In fact, they're downright belligerent when placed closely together.

Some whites are creamy—on the golden side. Liriope ‘Variegata’ and Hosta 'Aureomarginata' are creamy yellow. Others are on the creamy side. The blooms of Iberis sempervirens and the variegation of Ophiopogon japonicus 'Silver Dragon' are a more pure white. Mixing the two different types of white tends to muddy the color effect of each.

Mixing the two types of yellows in plant combinations is like mixing tennis shoes with an evening gown. Some yellows are golden-orange, like Rudbeckia hirta. Others yellows are pale with slightly green undertones, like Coreopsis 'Moonbeam'. It's easy to find the golden yellows, but the pale green-yellow blooms and variegation are a bit more unusual. They are worth hunting and purchasing when you're lucky enough to find them. The pale yellows look better in pastel color schemes. A third type is buff yellow, as found in David Austin English Roses. Soft, buff yellows blend well with both greenish and golden yellows landscape mixes. They combine well with each type individually, but not with all three at the same time!

Landscape Pro Tip # 9 Red Is Not Red in the Landscape Industry, but Pink Is Pink

What does the word red mean to you? To the nursery industry, red typically means deep dark rose pink. I don't know why this is, but it's important to know if you are choosing red cultivars for your landscape designs. If you order red Crapemyrtles or red Azaleas from a nursery catalog or plant wholesaler, chances are you will get anything from a dark scarlet-rose combination to a deep magenta. If you are looking for a plant with the classic, primary red-colored bloom, you must be sure the nursery lists the color as orange-red. Anything else will have a bluish undertone.

When nurseries describe pink blooms, they become more explicit. Clear pink is a medium pink, shell pink is a soft , peachy pink, and salmon pink is a coral color. 

Garden blues lean toward the purple portion of the color wheel. Purple coneflowers are actually a deep, rose pink, If you want purple blooms, look for a nursery description using the word “lavender”. If you are ever lucky enough to locate plants that are a true primary or sky blue, purchase them. They go with everything in the garden and provide cool relief in late summer. Forget-me-nots and Big Blue Salvia are good examples of true blues.

If in doubt about the nuances of different hues, purchase plants when they are in bloom. 

Landscape Pro Tip # 10 Color Intensity Needs to Intensify in Hotter Climates

The stronger the color, the better in hot areas. The Southeastern United States is very different from the typical English Garden flower bed. Sunshine from the West fries out the colors in a Southeastern perennial border! Pastels and weak hues fade to nothingness in intense sunlight. Pale colors are best relegated to a shady spot seen at close distances in warmer climates. The golden orange-yellows can look brassy, but they tend to be the most resilient hues in hot climates.             

Now that you know the gardening wisdom about color, it's time for a trip to the paint store to gather swatches to match with your plants. Happy landscaping!

Ten Tips for Using Color in Landscape Designs