Flower gardening: more than meets the eye – use of color

Donald W. Jackson

Creating a colorful garden should be a snap-a spot of yellow here, a touch of pink over there, and maybe even a splash of lavender or bright crimson just around the comer. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? We plan borders so the colors of plants blooming together are compatible, and we combine perennials of varying heights to fight that monotonous look.

A good design always strives to bring out even the most subtle features of both flowers and foliage. Perennial borders and other areas of the landscape must remain fresh and vibrant with the coming of each new season. Garden-color selection is more, much more, than simply choosing plants whose blooms complement and whose mature heights produce a pleasing flow to the eye. The best gardens, the ones that are remembered, have an ambiance all their own. Gardens have character; they develop feelings; and most of all, they create a mood.


Unfortunately, for many gardeners light simply means full sun, partial sun, or shade, and which plants will grow best under each condition. To fully appreciate how light can dominate the mood of a landscape, gardeners must have just as faithful an appreciation for the value of light as do nature photographers. Blues look much richer at dusk than in the bright light of midday. Likewise, using blue flowers near tables, benches, waterfalls, or sculptures will make these garden features even more inviting as light values diminish toward evening. Planting blue flowers near a reflection pool promotes a mood that is very restful and calming to our emotions.

It is difficult to describe the various shades of blues in words, and even harder to photograph them accurately. Some blues naturally project more intimate feelings than others. Foliage and berries can bring an added dimension to using blue in the garden. Especially in shaded areas, clusters of perennials with just a touch of blue or bluish green foliage can be quite complementary to plants with yellow or orange flowers. By comparison, most gardeners find it difficult to combine the more intense blues, like some forms of the Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), with other colors in

the landscape.


Vivid reds, vibrant crimsons, or bold scarlets are anything but subtle participants in the landscape. When backed by green foliage, red flowers appear more brilliant and distinct. Where as some colors almost seem to melt or blend in when viewed from a distance, most shades of red stand their ground well. Brighter shades of red can be used to good advantage in the landscape. With forethought and planning, they lend a dramatic statement to the perennial border. Red can be an overpowering color, however, and its use must be quite selective for best results. Large, unbroken swaths of bold red flowers can be exhausting to the eye. Such garish displays often overwhelm neighboring areas of the landscape, no matter how well-designed.

Tulips are available in many shades, from rose red to carmine or scarlet, and even groups as small as a dozen bulbs can provide refreshing pockets of beauty. Patches of the small-statured tulip Red Riding Hood (Tulipa greigi “Red Riding Hood”) offer a fresh breath of early spring color. Later-blooming tulips, such as the Darwin Hybrids, also help to set spring off on the right foot. Such varieties as “Apeldoom” (bright red) or “Red matador” (carmine red) are equally stunning, even when used in groups as small as 30 to 50 bulbs.

Yellows Yellow-hued flowers can be quite charming indeed. Soft, delicate yellows are especially inviting, because the eye is readily drawn to even the palest hue. Yet serene, yellow flowers can be used with little fear of overpowering the garden. Shocking shades of yellow or yellow-orange are too difficult for most gardeners to blend successfully into the landscape scheme. Many yellows can be used to help buffer some of the more overpowering shades of scarlet or vermilion. Even the softest yellows can stand by themselves and not simply tone down or mellow a hotter color. Do not make the mistake, however, of placing soft-yellow flowers in a location too distant for the eye to appreciate. A background of dark green foliage is greatly enhanced by a foreground cluster of serene yellow flowers. Another pleasing combination is soft-pink or light-rose blooms planted against a foreground of clear yellow flowers.

Great numbers of yellow flowering shrubs and herbaceous perennials are available to work into the garden scheme. Moreover, yellow flowers can color borders, from the winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) and cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas,) in early spring to our native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in the fall.

Plants having varying shades of yellow cast throughout their foliage are popular components of many landscapes. They provide the garden with a certain grace and charm duplicated in few other ways. Most landscape designers overlook the subtle beauty of yellow variegated foliage. Only a handful of overworked favorites, like some forms of liriope, miscanthus, or privet, are ever used. That is a shame, because the subtle, yellow variegated leaves of certain bamboos, sedges, and even pines, among others, can be excellent choices for many gardens. A single plant or at most a small grouping can be all that is needed in the right location.


White, when used to its fullest potential, is in many ways the most adaptable of colors. White can be a supreme complement to other colors, although few flowers are actually pure white. Most have tinges of pink, violet, or some other shade. The subtleties of many white-flowered plants are seldom appreciated by most gardeners. The white petals of some lilies are quite vibrant, compared with the blooms of a sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), which appear more cream colored and rank among the most beautiful flowers to be found anywhere in the garden.

The use of brilliant or dazzling shades of white must be tempered somewhat in the landscape. Whites are in many ways, however, the mediators of the garden, allowing most other colors to blend together more harmoniously. White flowers are also easier for the eye to pick up in dim or fading light. The time of day one tends to enjoy a garden may, for instance, influence the quantity of white flowers used in a perennial border.

White flowers can make dark green foliage appear much more vivid in a garden setting. This is one reason the deep evergreen leaves of the southern magnolia are so well-complemented by its own white blooms. White flowers also complement a range of garden furniture, fountains, or walkways better than many other colors. The cold, stark appearance of stone seats or statuary is greatly softened by the white blooms of a flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), Merrill. magnolia (Magnolia denudata “Merrill”), or Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata). Likewise, white emperor or lily-flowering tulips always look at home along a red brick walkway.

Even more than whites, the silvers and grays are especially overlooked by most gardeners. The foliage of many plants can be quite stunning and can range from pewter through various shades of blue-gray or greenish-gray to light silver.


Green is so common before our eyes in nearly any garden that we almost forget it exists. The foliage of most yews or boxwoods is quite dark compared to the much lighter leaves of a tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) or the bluish green hue of a Bar Harbor creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis “Bar Harbor”). Green as a color is quite soothing to our eyes. We take for granted the restful qualities of a simple green lawn. Even the green foliage of our common maples, ashes, or oaks is too often over looked. Green tends to take some of the harsh edge off the hot reds or oranges. It is also not given the credit it deserves for accentuating foreground plantings of flowers from pink to yellow or blue. Finally, even earth-toned garden structures from brown benches to slate gray statues are complemented by surrounding green foliage.

Changing Colors

Much more goes into the planning of a garden than simply choosing a handful of compatible colors. A few of our most popular flowers even change color as they mature. The flower buds of some viburnums and crab apples start out pink but often turn a stunning white. Other flowers may have broadly striped petals. The Kaufmanniana-type tulip “Stresa” is well-known for its attractive red-yellow blooms. Finally, many daffodils boast bicolor flowers. “Barrett Browning” features white petals and an orange inner cup.

Designing a garden that will be remembered for its beauty is no easy task. Of all factors to be considered, the proper use of color is perhaps the most elusive. Some colors will make a garden appear significantly larger than it really is; others may convey to visitors the feeling of peacefulness or serenity. A few colors even accentuate the shape or form of an object in the garden, such as a planting urn or sundial. Take the time to use each color to its fullest advantage. Your efforts will be repaid many times over.

COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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