Understanding How Colour Works in the Garden

Imagine your garden without colour, with nothing interesting to see and enjoy. Life and gardens would be very dull. Colour stimulates our brain and heightens our senses to the world around us. It also has a direct impact on our emotions. Colours can evoke feelings of happiness, sadness, fear etc.

There can never be a garden without colour even when you create a monochromatic or an achromatic garden. Colour is important in our lives and it is fun to learn the tricks of how to manipulate it, so you can create the illusion you want.

There are lots of aspects to think about when designing a new garden or redesigning an old one. For example there’s shape, cost, style, paving, walls and very often the colour in the garden is way down the list.

Colour can turn an ordinary garden into something brilliant that we can enjoy with our friends. As designers we can use colour to make us feel cheerful or miserable and create the illusion that a garden is actually bigger than it is which is a great bonus for small gardens.

What is colour? According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary colour is the sensation produced on the eye by rays of decomposed light. Colour is the sensation of illumination ie. the reds, greens, the blues etc. and the way they relate with each other depends on the their position in colour wheel.

There was great debate about the theories of colour among the artists and scientists of the 19th century. The French chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul designed a colour wheel where he graded the colours into complementary (opposite each other on the wheel eg. red and green) colours.

Colours fall into two groups:-

  1. Primary colours red, yellow, blue
  2. Secondary colours green, violet, orange

Primary colours can not be mixed from any other colours, where as if you combine to two primary colours you can create secondary colours of orange, green or violet.

Combining Colours In Your Garden

There are two ways of combining colour:-

  1. mixing colours which share pigments thus creating a harmonious mix or
  2. contrasting colours which do not share pigments and have no common elements.

The second combination makes more lively and interesting gardens. This is where the colour wheel can be very helpful as you can experiment and see what combinations appeal to you. For example blue and yellow are contrasting colours and can be linked together by using orange or violet.

Colours can be used to create a feeling of distance or closeness. Cool colours such as blue, green and violent recede into the distance where as warm colours such as bright oranges, reds and yellows creates the illusion of closeness.

Blue, green and violet are also great at creating a cooling effect during summer and are ideal to use in a spot that is copping the full sun. As green is in the cold category, another way to cool your garden in summer is to plant species with dark green leaves such as citrus Citrus limon (Lemon), C. aurantifolia (Lime) or C. sinensis (Sweet orange). This creates a psychological affect of not feeling so hot and bothered.

Warm colours such as red, orange, yellow are good to use in the colder months because they lighten our mood. Bright colourful flowers such as English marigolds (Calendula officinalis), yellow and orange coloured pansy’s (Viola sp.) and polyanthus (Primula sp.) are fantastic for making your feel more positive on a cold drab winters day.

Green is the predominate colour in nature and leaves are green because the pigment chlorophyll they contain reflect the green rays. There are many different shades of green and it depends of the amount of light and the type of surface of the leaf, whether it is waxy or hairy.

Smooth and waxy leaves look darker and purer in colour than leaves that have a dull or matt surface. Usually these plants are covered with the hairs and this deflects the direct reflection of light to help them survive in hot conditions.

Seasons And Garden Colours

Our seasons are often associated with particular colours. The 19th century artist Vincent van Gogh identified the seasons through colours – spring was represented by – yellow green, summer orange violet, autumn red orange and winter white and black.

Colour can affect us on a very deep psychological. Instinctively we know when there are lower light levels and the trees leaves are turning red, yellow and brown that autumn is approaching and often our mood becomes heavy. When we see new lime green coloured leaves bursting open on deciduous plants, our mood lightens, we feel happier and we know spring is coming.

Experimenting with colours is one of the fascinating aspects of light. The artists Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and artist/landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll were masters of experimenting with colour combinations. They tested their theories by arranging flower and foliage together.

Each artist understood that colours can be altered by sunlight or shade and Monet and van Gogh painted ‘en plein air’ (open air) which was unusual in the 19th century so they could capture the ‘real’ light. van Gogh and Monet were interested in exploring triads (three) of colours.

Van Gogh would suggest putting together blue, pink and white or yellow black and orange. Monet experimented with combining yellow and blue together and splash red through them. Jekyll was interested in colours that were adjacent to each other such as yellow and green, as she believed that no plant stood alone. To separate contrasting colours she would cleverly use white flowered or grey foliage plants to prevent the clashing of colour.

Van Gogh also liked to experiment with ‘complementary harmonies’. Based on Cheveuls wheel this is any shade (colour and black), tint (colour and white) or tone (colour and grey) of one colour being paired with one colour that is opposite it. For example van Gogh was famous for putting blue and orange together. Using shade, tint, tone or pure colour gives you a huge range of choices to experiment with.

Get The Right Colour Combinations For You

Colours combinations such as yellow/orange or orange/red are bold; they are bright and catch your eye immediately. An entire border of these colours is not very restful Place at regular intervals there needs to be a pause, where you can catch your breath.

You can either use white/grey or match a colour that harmonies with the colours you are using. Bold combinations are simple and don’t require you to respond to deeply. Where as subtle colours are such as pale pink and yellow are more difficult to use and require some effort on your part.

Your responses are deeper and often more complex to work out. Subtle colours require more definition because they can fade into obscurity and fade into the distance. Used well, they can create a powerful display especially if you want to create a garden with perspective.

White, grey and black are not considered colours by some experts but they can be used to great effect. While whites used to separate colours that clash with one another, the colour grey can be used to highlight the colour or plant next to it. Jekyll skilfully created ‘monochromatic’ flower gardens.

Monochromatic means using any shade, tint or tone of one colour eg. an all green garden or an all blue flower garden starting off with pale blues going into strong blues then fading out to the pale blue again. Jekyll wasn’t dictorial about adding other colours such as white or pale yellow as she believed they helped intensify the colour of the blue. Jekyll would complete the rhythm of the border by using the white flowers or the foliage of grey plants to rest the eye after a bright colour.

All white gardens were popularised by Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s in her garden Sissinghurst in England are called ‘acromatic’ meaning colourless garden using whites, greys and blacks. Sackville-West planned her garden carefully.

To achieve monochromatic or acromatic garden you need to search through the nursery catalogues because they have a much larger range of plants available than the local nursery. You need to carefully choose flowers that you think harmonise with each other, then, when they arrive, usually through the post which is very exciting, you need to experiment, noting down in a book which colours and plants worked and which didn’t.

The third type of colour experiment you could try is to create an analogous colour scheme. That is when you use any shade, tint or tone of colours that is at 90 degree from each other. For example red is 90 degrees from yellow/orange and blue is 90 degrees from red-violet. This means that you can choose any plants with flowers or foliage within this range.

All the above colour principles can be applied to Australian gardens whether you are using exotics or natives. However, one must realise that here at home we have much more intensive light and this tends to fade colours quickly. The best time to view Australian gardens in the afternoon when the light intensity is fading and we can capture all the subtleties of the different colours.

Colour is a complex subject and can be quite intimidating when you first begin. By starting off with a simple colour scheme and taking notes of your successes and failures, overtime, you will become more confident harmonising and contrasting colours and take more adventurous risks.

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