Design 101 - Using Color Theory

Design 101 - Using Color Theory

Sep 8, 2021

How to Design a Garden Using Colors

If you're anything like us, you've spent hours upon hours drooling over decadent gardens in magazines, blogs, and social media feeds. Some of the examples in these garden inspiration sources look too good to be true. And when you go to try and create that same experience in your home garden, something just feels off. Instead of a relaxing oasis, it feels like your niece threw her crayons in your yard willy-nilly and they took root. What's missing? How can a garden feel intricate and balances, interesting and cohesive at the same time?

Two words - color theory. The secret that the professionals know is that they start at the same place a painter or graphic designer would. Even Monet once said, "my garden is my most beautiful masterpiece." That's because he was doing the same thing your professional landscapers are doing - he was painting his world using plants.

Do you need to go back to college and learn art theory in order to have a beautiful garden? Nope! Color theory in gardening is easy to use, since there is plenty of wiggle room between your hues and shades. Color theory in gardening isn't an exact science; it is a jumping-off point to bring focus and clarity to your work.

So where to begin? First, go to your local art store and pick up a color wheel. We're serious. Or download this nifty gardening color guide. The color wheel is a unique way to consider the range of colors visible to the human eye, since it aligns colors together. This circle is a key tool to understand how colors interact with each other.

Garden Design Color Reference for Gardening Color Theory

There are 12 main colors on most wheels. The three primary colors, Red, Yellow, and Blue, are blended to make every other color possible. The 12 main colors are:

  • Red
  • Vermillon (Red + Orange)
  • Orange (Red + Yellow)
  • Amber (Orange + Yellow)
  • Yellow
  • Chartreuse (Yellow + Green)
  • Green (Yellow + Blue)
  • Teal (Green + Blue)
  • Blue
  • Violet (Blue + Purple)
  • Purple (Blue + Red)
  • Magenta (Purple + Red)

Each of these colors is considered a hue. Each hue has a tint, where white is mixed in, or a shade, where black is mixed in. Tints are also known as pastel colors, and shades are sometimes referred to as jewel tones.

Then you have your neutrals. These neutral hues are White, Black, Greys, Browns (which technically are a combination of all three primary colors to various degrees of balance), and, in gardening only, some Greens.

(A note about green - in gardening, green is considered neutral. Why? Because almost all plants have green chlorophyll in their foliage, and because in gardens greens can either pop visually as a part of the palette, or they can retreat into the background without distracting from the other colors. It's simply how the human eye works when looking at gardens, you don't always have to consider the green in your color combinations.)

How do all of these colors interact with each other? Well, to put it simply, colors are one of the fastest ways you can affect someone's moods and emotions. The reasons why are subjects in tomes of psychology and biology books, so we'll keep things simple. There are certain colors that will affect our moods in specific ways. Here are some key rules:

  • Cool colors (colors close to blue) are calming and soothing.
  • Warm colors (colors close to red) are energizing and invigorating.
  • Collections of colors that are next to each other on the wheel create a sense of harmony.
  • Collections of colors across from each other on the wheel create a sense of excitement and interest.

These four rules are some of the key takeaways for gardening. With this knowledge, you can use color to dictate how your garden makes you feel when you look at it. How cool is that?

The first step in designing a garden using color is to decide: "How do I want to feel when I look at my garden?" Is this a place in your yard where you want to retreat from the world and meditate? Do you want to step into a big party where pollinators are dancing around exciting colors? Do you want to feel a little burst of energy when you come home from your long commute?

The other goal to consider for your garden is where you want your eye to land. Color can visually guide the viewer - Our eye is naturally drawn to contrast. That can be subtle or extreme. So, ask yourself: "Where do I want to draw focus?".

Colors directly across from each other, aka complementary colors, make each other pop the best - these combos draw the eye and demand attention.

Do you want to draw attention away from an unsightly shed? Or do you want to keep your landscaping muted and draw attention towards a specific sculpture or building? With colors in a garden, you can choose where you want to place your points of contrast and pull focus.

Nature is already using color theory. Flowers have evolved to be visually brilliant in order to attract the creatures that will help them pollinate. What are they attracted to? Bright, contrasting colors!

Ok, so you know how you want your garden to make you feel, and you know how visually interesting you want your garden to be. Let's look at which colors will achieve your goals.

Color Combinations

Gardens can either be streamlined and simple and only have a few colors, or be wild and vibrant and have many. We'll go through the benefits of different levels of complexity and how to make them really shine.

Simpler easier garden color combinations

MONOCHROMATIC COLOR SCHEME - One Color (including all of its tints and shades)

Gardens don't have to have a ton of color to be beautiful and purposeful. If you're looking for a soothing, relaxing atmosphere, a monochromatic garden could be perfect. You can stay within a single color hue and create visual interest by adding tints and shades of that color together. The textures of different flower shapes and foliage will also draw the eye and create visual interest without changing colors.

A great example of a trendy monochromatic garden is a moon garden. These gardens only use plants with white flowers, because they absolutely shine under a full moon. The whole garden will glow when the white flowers reflect moonlight. During the day the same garden takes on a calming sense of harmony, since there is little contrast.

ANALOGOUS COLOR SCHEME- Similar Colors Next To Each Other.

Analogous colors are colors that sit together on the same side of the color wheel. We're listing this color combination next to monochromatic gardens because they create a similar sense of harmony. By using colors that are closely related, such as reds and oranges with vermillion or Violets with purples and magentas, you create just the right amount of visual interest while still creating harmony.

Cool tones in an analogous garden are soothing (like a Monet painting), and warm tones in an analogous garden are energizing and happy. Try Lavender and Salvia with Blue Cardinal Flowers for a meditation garden with a Mediterranean vibe. Or, try Roses and Coneflowers with Coreopsis for a bright red orange and yellow blend. Color harmonies work with foliage too: Hostas will pair well with Lemon-Lime Nandinas and Boxwoods.

COMPLEMENTARY COLOR SCHEME- Two Colors directly opposite each other.

The next level is to add direct contrast using complementary colors. These opposites are called complementary because they make each other look their best. Truly. Yellow makes Purple look more purple, and Orange makes Blue look bluer. This is the tool nature uses to attract their ecosystem - holly berries on an evergreen branch or yellow and purple petals on a pansy flower. If you want to draw someone's attention instantly while still keeping things simple, use a pair of Complementary colors.

Ok, here's where things start to get complicated. And, in all honesty, sometimes going any further can make things too complicated. The most beautiful gardens often use less color choices. Coco Chanel's best fashion advice said that one should look in the mirror before leaving the house and remove one item. The same concept works in gardening as well.

But, if you want a garden that will have lots of places to look and feel very exciting and interesting, then adding more colors is the way to go. Choosing the right colors will keep things balanced and complex at the same time.

TRIADIC COLOR SCHEME - Three Colors evenly spaced around the color wheel.

This is a bold choice for bold gardens. The best way to make a triad color scheme still feel relatively cohesive is to stay away from also combining too many textures. Rows of tulips or matching annuals can pull off a color triad with lots of success while still looking very exciting. Your neighbors will certainly look to this garden first before looking anywhere else in your yard!

more complex garden color combinations

A strong color scheme can potentially make your small garden look bigger and more impactful too.

TETRATIC COLOR SCHEME - Four Colors that make a rectangle across the color wheel.

Typically, tetradic color combinations are usually left to graphic designers, but gardeners can still take a note from these dynamic palettes. This is a purposeful and attractive way to make it look like your niece did throw her crayons at your garden. This explosion of color can be very enriching and vivacious as long as it's done with a sense of balance. Pollinators love colors, so try one of these combos for a wild pollinator garden of tall meadow flowers.

Your hardscape elements can be a part of your garden, as well. If you have a wall or a fence with a bold color, include that in your color combinations and choose plants that will work well together. A set of bright teal chairs can be a part of a complex set of colors in the summer, then a part of a complementary set when they sit in front of your Miscanthus in the winter.

blue chairs in front of dry ornamental grasses in the fall garden design inspo

Ok, here's a color combination that sounds way more complicated than it looks. We think it's actually very attractive!

ANALOGOUS + COMPLEMENTARY, or COMPLEX COMPLEMENTARY - a set of colors near each other on the wheel along with one color across from them on the wheel.

This is a very popular choice in gardening. You get the sense of harmony and balance from Analogous colors, with the pop of visual interest from the one complementary color. This is a great way to keep things balanced without risking it being too boring. We'll use this combination as a starting point for a practice garden later in this article.


Now, how to use these tools in the garden. Let's build a theoretical garden using color as our starting point. We'll design a garden that's relaxing and joyful - we want to choose colors that feel balanced and interesting. We're going to use both a set of analogous colors and the complementary color that's opposite from them. Let's try Magenta, Purple, Violet, and Yellow. We're mixing warm and cool colors, but most of the colors are warm and energizing.

Now, what does our garden need? In this example, all the plants we choose need to enjoy full sun, since this is going to be on the south side of a privacy wall that runs east to west. Here is a helpful way to notate what we'll be looking for while we go shopping for plants.

Notes for shopping for plants based on color theory in garden design

In lieu of professionally drawn landscaping illustrations, we're going to use the program Paint to show how this is something everyone can do, not just the landscapers with art degrees.

The area is 30' long and straight, and we want the garden to come out a good way into the yard. We want the garden to have layers, so it flows and creates an attractive slope from the trees down to the ground. Here are the levels:

Simple way to decide what heights you want for your garden design

And here are two bird's eye view layouts that could work. The garden could be a formal garden with traditional lines:

traditional formal garden layout with the same plants

Or a cottage garden with a less stringent shape:

Cottage Garden style in garden design where the plants blend into each other

The colors can then be numbered by which plant you want to put there. We're keeping things simple and only using a few choices - one for each color in the combination of choice and two to frame the garden.

It's good practice to plant your plants in groups of threes, fives, or sevens. Odd numbers are a good rule of design, and keeping them in groups will look more balanced than mixing them all in with each other - we want each color in our garden to shine. Each of these area bubbles will contain 3 or 5 of each plant.

Now that we have a reference for how many types of plants we want, and what we're looking for in the plant specs, we can go shopping. Garden Goods Direct even has these great collections where you can shop by color! After carefully considering the heights and sizes of the plants, here is a good answer to our original goal for this garden:

  1. Emerald Green Arborvitaes create both privacy and a foundation, or backdrop, to your garden.
  2. Bloomerang Lilacs bloom with sweet scents and lovely bright purple flowers, and they will add height to the garden.
  3. Coneflowers come in a very wide range of colors; pink, purple, magenta and rose colored coneflowers will work for the joyful energy we want.
  4. Lavender is the perfect plant for this garden - it's the right height, it smells lovely, and it brings the deep violet purple color we need.
  5. Daylilies are available in oranges and yellows, but for our purposes the Happy Returns Daylily's yellow hue makes the purples in the lavender look more vibrant.
  6. Variegated Liriope is a good ground cover alternative to only using mulch, and it will smooth add balance by creating a lower level. Its flowers are purple too! This is the best ground cover choice since it loves full sun the same way the rest of this garden does.

Final shopping list for example garden based on color theory

We hope this helps! Check out the garden inspirations below and see if you can identify which color combination makes them look so beautiful. If you use color theory in your own garden, you can work to create an environment that feels enriching, relaxing, and perfectly suited to your mood.

Inspiration photo for gardening with complementary flower colors

red begonia and foliage showing color contrast up close in gardens

wild natural garden design inspiration with triads of colors

wildflower garden inspiration with cool tones

using annuals in a triadic color scheme for themes garden designs

monochromatic garden with all greens for modern garden inspiration

analogous color scheme in garden design garden inspiration warm colors

You can always ask our customer service team if you can't find the perfect plant for your garden - let us help paint your garden in a rainbow of possibilities.