Choosing garden color schemes should be given the same depth of consideration you would devote to a color scheme indoors. In fact, we would go so far as to say that the main role of planting is to provide a color garden scheme.
This can be themed around a harmonious selection of soft shades that blend together for a relaxed feel. A combination of muted greys, purples and blues, for instance, creates a restrained atmosphere that can also include fresh greens and pastels. The result is easy to live with and works well in most spaces.
Alternatively a much bolder garden color scheme can be used in an eye-catching way to add a more vibrant touch. Stronger choices can work as bright punctuation marks or surprise pockets of color to create focal points.
Either way, color works together with form and texture as the basis of all good garden color schemes so it’s important to get it right. Here, we harness the best garden ideas to tell you how.
Garden color schemes – as part of your overall design
Seeing your garden color scheme as part of an overall composition that includes texture and shape within your flower bed ideas is key. It’s important to understand how and where to use different colors in your garden design to achieve the best effects.
Also take into account the way light moves around in the garden, and the play of sunlight and shadow as these influence how we see color at different times of day.
‘Color and light are key elements in the garden,' says garden designer Charlotte Rowe (opens in new tab). 'Color gets refracted and changes throughout the day with the play of light on surfaces, which can really affect how color and light behaves in landscapes.’
Color has a huge impact on mood and ambience, so choose your garden color scheme carefully. Don’t underestimate the color green either. ‘It creates calm and connects us to nature,’ says garden designer Michelle Brandon (opens in new tab), who specializes in therapeutic gardens. ‘The garden doesn’t have to be all-singing, all-dancing color. We have enough stimulus in our lives to contend with as it is.’
How do I choose a color scheme for my garden?
When it comes to choosing garden color schemes, garden designers tend to limit the color palette to green plus two other colors.
‘A riot of color is great if you really know what you’re doing but it’s safer to restrict the color range,’ says Charlotte Rowe. ‘Limit the use of color in hard landscaping too. We never use the color green for trellis and fences as it fights against the natural color of the plants.’
Instead, choose neutral colors and local materials wherever possible such as brick and flint. The exception is very dark grey for walls, fences and trellis, as it helps boundaries recede, makes the space look larger and is brilliant for off-setting plants.
Choose garden color schemes according to location
Using specific color ranges and styles of planting in different parts of the garden helps to reinforce the character of each area, resulting in a much more varied experience. But other things need to be decided first.
‘When I plan a garden color scheme, decisions on hues and detailed planting usually come last once the overall structure has been decided,’ says landscape architect Pip Morrison. ‘It’s definitely a case of last but not least though as it’s probably color, whether full-on or restrained, that has the most immediate impact.’
Pip suggests thinking of adjectives to describe the feel you want in your garden. These defining words help to form a unifying thread throughout the design, including in those later stages of planning the detailed planting when it’s all too easy to fall back on favourite plants and colors.
Plan a garden color scheme for a border
A stylish effect in a garden color scheme can be achieved through the use of restraint and repetition – and this is where knowing how to plan a flower bed is key to this, as is a knowledge of the color wheel (more on this below), which can lend a pleasing unity to the planting.
‘We love creating harmony through simplicity and rhythm in our planting,’ says designer Alistair W Baldwin (opens in new tab). 'Repetition of color is a useful device to unify the garden and pull together a theme. The most simple and effective way to do this is by choosing one or two dominant colors. The trick to add that special wow is to plant colors in big loose blocks. It can be tempting to cram in more but try to keep things simple with a more subdued approach if you want to create a relaxing space. The fewer the colors, the more stylish the result.'
This south-facing border above uses a limited palette featuring the roses ‘Princess Anne’ (bottom left), ‘Young Lycidas’ (middle left) and ‘Harlow Carr’ (centre) combined with perennials including Salvia ‘Amethyst’ Echinops ‘Veitch’s Blue’, Eryngium x tripartitum and Penstemon ‘Blackbird’.
Make garden color schemes work for a contemporary look
A garden color scheme in a modern setting can be anything you want it to be: have fun, break the rules and add some personality to your garden.
‘One of the things I love about using color in contemporary gardens is that there are no rules,’ says Patricia Fox of Aralia Garden Design (opens in new tab). ‘There’s a real sense of freedom, which can lead to a truly innovative garden space.’
Simplicity is everything. Go minimal and choose just one flower or color as a highlighting touch, such as these bold orange flowers above which also complement the rusted look of Corten steel, pulling together the hard landscaping to create cohesive tropical garden ideas.
This courtyard features bold splashes of orange Crocosmia against an evergreen backdrop of buxus and taxus hedging, with a theatrical green canopy of Dicksonian tree ferns overhead. A neutral hardscape of Corten steel arches, oak, reclaimed brick, sawn sandstone and cream canopies complements the look.
What colors go well together in a garden?
To work out which colors go well together in a garden, first decide on the mood you want to create for your garden color scheme.
‘Do you want it to be vibrant and energizing using bright and contrasting colors, or would you prefer a relaxing feel with a pastel-based color palette?’ says Sue Townsend (opens in new tab).
Create a mood board of plants suited to your soil in the colors you like and note when they’re in flower. This allows you to see the effect of each of the plants next to each other before you take the plunge. Consider the color of the foliage of perennials, grasses or shrubs that add color to accentuate the plants beside them.
‘Drama can be ramped up in a garden when you put plants together that have close color associations,’ says designer Jane Brockbank (opens in new tab). ‘Thinking more in terms of “pools” of warm or cool colors, put hot pinks/reds/magentas together or combine a palette of lilacs/blues/deep purples. There’s no such thing as clashing in my book!’
Striking color combinations are those that contrast – purple and yellow, for example – or, as Jane says above, those that complement – red and pink, for example.
In this scheme, Sue chose plants that work well together as fitting harmoniously into your color scheme: Centranthus ruber ‘Coccineus (in foreground); Crambe maritima (white flower); Verbascum phoeniceum ‘Violetta’; Stipa gigantea; Euphorbia characias subsp. Wulfenii; Cynara cardunculus; Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’(grass on right hand side)
How to use the color wheel in garden design
The color wheel provides a technical reference for organizing a garden color scheme, enabling us to make selections and contrasts so our color choices sing.
'Central to the color wheel are the bold and bright primaries red, yellow and blue,' says color expert Andrew Wilson FSGD and design consultant to McWilliam Studio (opens in new tab) and Director of London College of Garden Design.
'The use of these colors together in a planting scheme would prove lively but the real fun starts as we move away from primaries to mixing colors together. Our first stop is the secondaries or complementary colors opposite the primaries in the wheel. The use of red with green would be a good example as the combination makes the red more intense and the green brighter. The next group of colors are the tertiaries, which lie between the secondaries, for example warming up in the red spectrum.'
We often make predictable choices related to our preferences. If you want to be a little more experimental, start by placing a triangle on the color wheel so that each point sits on a color. 'First do the primaries, then move the triangle as if it were a dial – the points will sit on colors that will work together through contrast. These are color triads,' says Andrew Wilson. 'For the tetrads, place a square or a rectangle over the color wheel in the same way. The four corners will pick up colors that work together. Again, the square can be moved to change the color combinations.'
In this planting design above by Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam, the massing of plants deliver bold color based on a tetrad, four points on the color wheel touching red, orange, blue-purple and green. ‘The trend now is for planting palettes that are dominated by perennials, which are all about color,' adds Andrew Wilson.
The properties of color are also important. Red is also known as an advancing color, noticeable and bold, suggestive of heat and energy in colors it permeates such as orange and magenta. Blue is a receding, cooler color creating depth and space in blues, blue-violet and blue-greens. Yellows are sunny and cheerful. Most are warm and pair well with reds and oranges. Greenish-yellows are cooler and suit more delicate combinations. Greens suggest calmness and freshness.
What colors look good with plants?
The colors that look good with plants – on house exteriors, paintwork, fences and walls – really depend on the effect you want to create.
The most subtle way to choose colors that look good with plants is to rely on natural, local materials to show off your blooms, from natural stone to untreated timber.
If you want to create drama, creating a backdrop that complements your planting will show it off to great effect. For example, cottage garden ideas can look beautiful against house colors that are sympathetic to the planting – think pastel blue, pink or yellow, for example.
Generally, greens aren't favored as a backdrop for planting, because they can look unnatural against the green of your foliage; however, harsher colors, such as grey, blue and even black can show off planting to great effect.
Lifestyle journalist Sarah Wilson has been writing about gardens since 2015. She's written for Gardeningetc.com, Livingetc, Homes & Gardens, Easy Gardens and Modern Gardens magazines. Her first job on glossy magazines was at Elle, during which time a visit to the legendary La Colombe d'Or in St-Paul-de-Vence led to an interest in all things gardening. Later as lifestyle editor at Country Homes & Interiors magazine the real pull was the run of captivating country gardens that were featured.
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