Color is often handled in the garden in a haphazard, random fashion. Many a home gardener is satisfied by the simple fact of colorful patches in the garden, without giving much thought as to whether the color scheme works, or if one can speak of a color design in any meaningful sense of the word. A garden that is described by a visitor as a “riot of color" may cause its owner to beam with pride and fulfillment, but should the recipient of the “complement" be quite so satisfied with him or herself?
Allow me to be personal for a moment and ask you to imagine that your sitting room was so described. Better still, how would you feel if someone said that the outfit you wore at a dinner party was a “riot of color"? The crucial point is that what works and does not work in interior design or in dress, does not work in the garden either. Professional garden designers, while trying to achieve an artistic effect, actually approach the question of color in a systematic, almost a scientific way. Let's consider some of the points they would cover.
The first question is what mood are you trying to create? Two facts are worth noting here. One is that the eye generally picks out color before shape and size, so the colors you choose will inevitably have a considerable influence on people who use the garden. The other is that different colors definitely affect peoples’ mood. The “hot" colors like red and orange tend to excite and stimulate, while the “cool" colors like blue, tend to exert a calming influence.
Secondly, the garden designer makes a strategic decision at some point in the design process as to whether the color scheme will be monochromatic, (based on a single color) harmonious, or contrasting, although the decision in favor of one type of scheme, does not necessarily preclude elements of the other two types. A design could be essentially harmonious, based say on greens, pale lemon and gold, with a small splash of light blue for contrast.
A monochromatic design is inevitably simple, bold, and powerful, although it could be boring and one-dimensional if not handled imaginatively. A harmonious design, based on colors that are adjacent to one another on the prismatic color wheel, is likely to be relaxing, while if drama is called for, or the composition requires uplifting, then contrast is one of the means at the designer's disposal. The strongest contrasts are achieved by the complementary colors, that is those that are directly opposite each other on the wheel. Differing hues of red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet can create stunning affects if used wisely, but horrible clashes if not.
The simplest way of learning which colors go well together, and the affect they create, is to thumb through fashion and design books. For a deeper understanding of color though, it is worthwhile visiting art galleries and try to discern how the artist creates mood, movement, and perspective. The impressionists especially, were masters at using color for these purposes. The trick then, is to apply the abstract principles to the reality of your garden. That needless to say, is easier said than done!
My name is Jonathan Ya'akobi.
I've been gardening in a professional capacity since 1984. I am the former head gardener of the Jerusalem Botanical Garden, but now concentrate on building gardens for private home owners. I also teach horticulture to students on training courses. I'd love to help you get the very best from your garden, so you're welcome to visit me on http://www.dryclimategardening.com or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org