Color Theory 101: Flowers and Foliage


How to Effectively Use Color in the Garden

Color is a strong design element, attracting attention and guiding the human eye. When it comes to landscaping, colors can even be used to alter mood and perception.

For instance, colors can evoke relaxation, make small spaces appear larger, highlight a particular area, and unify different areas of a landscape.

The Color Spectrum

colorThe spectrum of colors is typically divided into four categories:

  1. Primary colors: reds, yellows and blues.
  2. Secondary colors: greens, violets and oranges. These are an even blending of two primary colors.
  3. Tertiary colors: Blends of primary and secondary colors (such as red-orange).
  4. Neutral colors: White, grays and silvers. (e.g., bayberry shrubs).

Tertiary colors work particularly well in transitional areas. For example, in a red and violet color scheme, you could use red-violet flowers or foliage in between the red plants and purple plants for a more harmonious transition between the two.

Perception of Color

Colors affect our moods and perceptions. “Warm” colors—red, yellow and orange—demand our attention and evoke excitement. “Cool” colors, on the other hand—green and blue—evoke relaxed, calm feelings.

Purple is unusual in that it can be either cool or warm, depending on the other colors around it. If it’s next to blue, purple is perceived as cool, but when it appears near red, it’s seen as warm.

Here are a few ways warm and cool colors affect our perceptions within a landscape:

color• A combination of warm and cool colors can create an illusion of depth by placing warm colors in the foreground, and cool-colored plants behind them.

• Warm colors can make large spaces appear more intimate, as they tend to come forward and seem closer than they really are. The overall effect is to scale down the entire landscape.

• Warm colors are also natural attention-grabbers, drawing visitors into a space by creating a focal point.

• Warm-colored or cool-colored plants grouped together create unity within a particular planting bed or even throughout the landscape.

• Alternatively, deliberately juxtaposed warm and cool colors within a planting bed produce contrast. (For example, yellow and purple provide maximum contrast.)

• Neutrals allow for transition between stronger hues, softening the effect of loud color schemes.

Color Schemes

When choosing a color scheme for your landscaping, take into account the type of psychological response you’re trying to evoke. Here are six possible schemes you may wish to consider:


A monochromatic scheme uses one color and its various tints and shades. This scheme has a harmonious visual effect.

For example, white monochromatic plantings are commonly used to create a sense of elegance and simplicity. (In addition to white blossoms, silver foliage is often included in this type of design.) White gardens are sometimes referred to as “moon gardens,” since the flowers and silver foliage glow in the moonlight. Which makes white an excellent choice if you primarily utilize your landscape in the evening.

A good way to vary the vignette is to choose plantings of the same color but with different foliage sizes and shapes.


colorAn analogous color scheme uses colors that are located next to each other on the color wheel. These colors blend easily into one another. (Impressionist Claude Monet utilized them in many of his paintings of gardens.)

For example, orange and red are analogous; from a distance, a planting of orange and red flowers may appear to be the same color. This is because of the closeness of these colors on the color wheel. Up close, you can see that analogous colors create a rich mix that blend well and are visually harmonious.

A landscape composed with an analogous palette will appear peaceful and fluid, projecting an overall sense of harmony.


Complementary  schemes use colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. (Don’t let the terminology confuse you; complementary color pairs actually provide striking contrast.) Each complementary color adds to the intensity of its opposite.

The Christmas colors of red and green, for instance, liven up dark winter days. The popular combination of purple and yellow is another example. When combined, these colors actually increase the brightness of the each other. And when creatively used in a landscape, plantings literally pop with intensity.

Vincent Van Gogh was a master at utilizing complementary colors, which is what makes his paintings so visually exciting. In a landscape, complementary colors are usually most appealing when one color is more dominant than the other, rather than in equal proportions.


Primary color schemes use the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue. When used together, they are bright and energetic, attracting attention and stimulating the brain.

However, in landscapes they can sometimes be too visually jarring. There are two ways to correct this problem: Use shades or tints of the primary colors, or let one of the colors dominate and use the two other as accents.


A polychromatic (also known as “riotous”) color scheme uses multiple colors in a vibrant and bold combination. This can be a difficult scheme to pull off. If it’s too energetic and visually stimulating, the human eye will have nowhere to focus. So it’s important to use repeating colors in this scheme, to keep the landscape from clashing without any sense of unity.


Pastel color schemes in a landscape can include all hues on the color wheel in muted tones to create soft and subtle effects. Pastel colors combine best with other pastel colors and work well with plants that have silver or gray-tinted foliage.

To keep a pastel color scheme from looking washed out, you can add one or two plantings that have a more saturated color (such as like a dark green shrub or deep purple perennial).

Pulling It All Together

We’ve provided you with a lot of information about using color in your landscaping. The following video clip helps to pull it all together:



University of Georgia Extension

The Spruce

Proven Winners

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