About Color

A few gardeners prefer the understatement of a totally green garden, but most want the added variety and interest that color brings. When used properly, color can turn a drab yard into a striking, cheerful landscape.

It is usually more satisfactory to plan for some color throughout the year rather than concentrating it all in a single season. Most people think only of annual and perennial flowers when they plan color. Although flowers—including flowering trees, shrubs, ground covers, and vines—may present the most obvious choices, don’t overlook other sources of color in the garden.

Many plants bear brilliant berries or other fruit. Some plants contribute color with their bark and twigs. Others have colorful foliage throughout the growing season; besides various shades of green, the palette of leaf color includes gray, silver, red, purple, bronze, yellow, and variegated colors. The leaves of many deciduous plants turn bright colors in fall. Usually, fall color is more spectacular in cold climates, although some plants are also colorful in mild-winter regions. Check with a local nursery for varieties that have fall leaf color in your area.

It is important to know not only what color a plant will contribute to the garden, but also when the plant will be colorful. Knowing when different plants flower or fruit can help you plan for color throughout most of the year. Then you can plot the location of the plants so that the colors are properly distributed in the garden and are pleasing to the eye.

Trying Colors

When you walk for the first time into a garden filled with flowering plants and lush foliage, your most enduring memory will likely be of the colors rather than some other feature of the garden. It’s true that the success of a garden is based on more than just color, but color is the most impressive and memorable of all garden qualities. Ideas for color schemes can come from anywhere: a neighbor’s garden, the colors found in a single blossom, or from something as practical as the color of the exterior paint on your house.

Understanding the principles of color can help in selecting plants and blending them into the garden. However, although the value of these principles has been proven over time, color is a highly personal subject, and the garden is a forgiving place where even mistakes can have merit. You will find that, even when you follow the principles discussed below, using color is a continual process of discovery. You could be surprised by some color combinations. Colors that you never thought would look well together may turn out to be very pleasing.

If you are reluctant to combine certain flower or leaf colors, one good way to experiment on a small scale is to plant combinations in pots or other containers. Or plant one kind in each pot and move the pots around until you find combinations that please you. This does not require much time or effort, and the results can be surprisingly good. The plantings can then be carried out on a larger scale in the garden.

Vita Sackville-West, the noted English gardener, used to carry a branch of a flowering plant around the garden until she found a place where it was most pleasing. It was then, and only then, that she decided either to leave the plant where it was or move it to a new, more desirable location. You can do the same with several pots of experimental color combinations, trying them in various locations until you find one where they look best.