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Designing Gardens Using Color Theory

Mary Kirk Menefee, Merrifield Landscape Designer

As a designer, one of the most common phrases I hear is “I want color!” It would seem to be a simple request, but stop and think about what it means, and there are suddenly too many directions in which to turn. What good is a handsome house with elegant hardscapes and a solid structure of trees, shrubs and generous planting beds if those beds look like every orphan plant in the annuals section came to take root in them?

Basics of Color Theory

Using color in an elegant and sophisticated way requires us to take a trip back to high school art class. Do you remember that project where you had to paint an elaborate color chart, noting each hue, tone, tint and complement? It’s time for a refresher!

The chart above summarizes the basics of color theory and introduces some important vocabulary:

  • Hue: A hue is the color itself. Red, yellow and blue are primary. Orange, green and purple are secondary. All of the hues directly between a primary and a secondary color are tertiary. Hues directly across from one another on the wheel are complementary.
  • Value: Value refers to lightness versus darkness or the addition of white and black. A hue with white is called a tint. A hue with black is called a shade.
  • Purity vs. Muting: Whereas tints and shades are pure hues, muted colors can be made by combining hues. Hues mixed with their complements are called tones. If combined in equal proportions, two complements will make a neutral, like grey or tan. Since tones can also be tinted or shaded, we now have a full range of colors.

Color Schemes

With the basics in mind, we can begin to think about crafting color schemes that will give the garden strength and meaning. In general, it’s best not to try to use every hue. Limiting your pallet can be a challenge when there are so many beautiful plants to catch your eye, but your restraint will be rewarded with a pleasing unity and harmony. You also will need to decide if green will play a role in the scheme itself or if it will serve as an honorary garden neutral. If you are unsure where to start, there are a number of color scheme “formulas” to try.

  • Monochromatic: This color scheme focuses on just one hue and explores all of its tints, shades and tones. Common examples are white gardens, where flowers and foliage range from grey to snow white to cream, as shown to the right. Another is a romantic pink garden, where flowers and foliage fall within the red-violet family, be it mauve, rose or maroon.
  • Analogous: This color scheme pairs two hues that are next to each other on the color wheel, such as blue and purple or orange and yellow.  Again, a range of tints, shades and tones can add depth and contrast.
  • Complementary: This color scheme pairs hues that are across from one another on the color wheel. One of my favorite pairings is yellow with purple. Each color is easy to come by in both flowers and foliage, so the combinations are endless and can produce strikingly different results as you can see in these two examples.


With any scheme, remember that the colors need not all be bright or loud. A successful variation of a double complementary scheme pairs a more pure hue with others pushed toward neutral, as in this green and grey garden. Can you spot all of the hues and how they relate to one another?

Plan Your Color Scheme

Now that you have a basic understanding of color theory, it’s time to get out the paints and put your scheme down on paper. If painting is not for you, visit your local hardware store and put together a collage of paint chips. Try to include no more than seven colors—remember this means a combination of tints, shades, tones and neutrals—not seven different hues. Make each one larger or smaller according to how much you intend to use it. Try a few variations. Your result might look something like this:

As you work through this exercise, here are some tips to help you build the perfect color scheme:

Start with hue

What color(s) do you want to use?
Tip: Limit color selection for more unity; pay attention to the underlying hues within neutrals to ensure harmony.

Consider contrast

How bold do you want to be?
Tip: Complements will be more— bold, changes in value and tone within the same hue can be more subtle.

Think about dominance

What leads? What accents?
Tip: Try a blend of neutrals and tones with one strong accent color.

Reflect on mood

What feeling do you want to bring?
Tip: Warmth and contrast tend to be energetic, while coolness and subtlety tend to be more calming. Blending these ideas can be edgy.

Don’t ignore your givens

What colors can you not avoid because they already exist as part of the space?
Tip: Diagnose the underlying hues in your house and hardscapes.

Plan for seasonality

How will the garden change throughout the year?
Tip: Group plants that shine at the same time.

When you’re happy with your color scheme, bring it to Merrifield Garden Center and look for stone, planters, garden art and plants with foliage or flowers that fall within it. Don’t forget that plants need to be able to thrive in your conditions or you might end up with some unintended brown.