Color Theory

The Gardens on Spring Creek

by Chelsea Mclean, The Gardens on Spring Creek Horticulturist

In late February, I found myself scanning the sea of tans, taupes, and beiges out the office window, feeling antsy for color. True, the occasional vibrant spot of color from orange rose hips or blue-green conifers provides a visual break, but it doesn’t compare to the growing season. By understanding the basics of color theory now, gardeners can have a greater impact in the coming summer without more work. 

Let’s start with a refresher: you may remember that the primary colors are red, yellow and blue. Mix these together in different formulations and you get the secondary colors orange, green, and purple. On the left side of the color wheel are the cool colors, the ones that inspire calm and tranquility. Opposite these are the warm colors that excite and buzz.  Mix in your neutral colors – white, black and grey – and you get tints, tones and shades. 

Color Wheel (Photo by Annie Spratt Unsplash)

Working with these foundational concepts is where things start to get exciting. The most dramatic color combinations are those that sit opposite one another on the wheel, like my personal favorite of tangerine and violet. Referred to as contrasting colors, be sure to choose highly saturated colors for contrast plantings as muted colors will only reduce the intensity.

Perhaps a monochromatic planting is more your style. When I’m feeling less riotous, choosing multiple values of one color can be just the ticket to appreciate finer details without distraction. A planting of chocolate flowers, golden yarrow, and yellow foxtail lily allows for the delicious scent, the layered architecture, and the yarrow’s bouncing canopy to take center stage.

Somewhere in between lies the analogous planting. Choose three colors in succession on the color wheel and enjoy the flowing cohesion. Drifting purples, reds and oranges can create a mood, similar to viewing an abstract painting. I once planted row crops of dahlias in this way and it had people stopping their cars in the middle of the street to gawk.

There are a few tips to keep in mind when playing with color. First, make sure your plan takes seasonality into account. If your purples have passed as your oranges are opening, your plan has been thwarted. Next, by mixing textures and values, green and silver can be used in their own composition. Throwing some red foliage into your green composition is a good way to highlight intentionality (remember: contrast). Finally, colors are used to play site conditions. A dark corner can be lit up with whites and yellows, while cool tones can bring the hot, stagnant energy of a space down.

I’m the type of gardener who holds play as a virtue above all others. Rules are recommendations, and personal taste trumps textbooks. So, don’t hesitate to sprawl on the floor with crayons and paper and scribble like a kid or stage plants in groups at the nursery to find what looks best to you. Understand how light, emotion and juxtaposition affect your choices, then have at it. Go forth and color!

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