As spring moves into summer, it’s the most colorful time of the year. Although the earliest flush of floral displays might have faded, summer’s blaze of glory is on the way. Flowers are fairly forgiving, and it’s easy to dress up any landscape with a pop of color here and there. But understanding how colors work together and how to combine them to their best advantage can make your clients’ sites shine.

Your goal when combining colors is to create harmony. Too little contrast and the results can be boring and fl at. But too much can be chaotic and over-stimulating.

Photo: iStock

A little theory

The right colors can create a mood, shout a statement, draw attention to a wonderful feature or minimize a flaw. Color theory is simply practical guidance on how to combine shades and hues for the maximum effect.

You’ve undoubtedly seen a color wheel. Sir Isaac Newton created the first one in the 1600s, and it’s still a great tool to ensure the colors you pick will look good together. The primary colors are red, yellow and blue. They are named such because they cannot be mixed or formed by any other combination of colors. The secondary colors, green, orange and purple, are formed by mixing the primary colors. The tertiary colors, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green are made by mixing a primary and a secondary color.

When using a color wheel, you can use colors that are adjacent to each other. This is known as analogous colors. Colors across the wheel from each other are called complementary.

Your goal when combining colors is to create harmony. Too little contrast and the results can be boring and flat. But too much can be chaotic and over-stimulating.

“When it comes to color theory in the garden, my personal approach is to break it down three ways,” says Justin Hancock, horticulturist with Costa Farms in Miami. Costa Farms grows and distributes wholesale nursery stock throughout the Eastern seaboard and beyond. “There’s monochromatic, which I have a particular fondness for (especially when designing all-white or mostly white gardens); complementary, where I stick to colors next to each other on the color wheel, such as red/orange/yellow or pink/purple/blue; or I go contrast with opposite colors, such as orange and purple or blue and yellow.”

Of course, when using flowers of any kind, there is almost always going to be green in the mix, which helps to tie the design together. In fact, “a color scheme based on nature” is one of the suggestions color experts use to assist designers. For example, red (petals), yellow (center) and green is a natural combination that is pretty much guaranteed to work.

Photo: Simply Perfect Gardens

Show-stopping combos

Color choices can vary according to season. Springtime pastels are popular, with soft pinks, purples and yellows offering a classic combination to cheer up the spirit after a long winter. As days get longer and temperatures rise, bolder colors make their appearance.

“I love sweet potato vine; the bright-lime green Marguerite with the Purple Royal Velvet petunia is one of my favorite combinations,” says Marie Limoge, landscape designer at diStefano Landscape in Jericho, Vermont. Limoge was honored this year with an award from the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association.

Bright pops of color work for spring and summer.

Photo: diStefano Landscape

Purple and chartreuse became trendy a few years back, and the combination is so striking that it might very well be called a new “classic” combination.

“When it comes to trends, it’s been around a while, but I don’t see the trend of using either purple or chartreuse (or both) as foliage accents going away any time soon,” says Hancock. “And you see it with the incredible popularity of plants like sweet potato vine (Ipomoea), coleus (Wasabi is one of my all-time favorite annuals), purple elephant’s ears, purple-leaf ornamental peppers, and many more.”


Drought Can’t Stop Color

Alison Fleck, owner and designer at Simply Perfect Gardens in Benecia, California, has another challenge when adding color to the landscape: drought.

Regulations in much of the Bay Area call for landscapes to use 55 percent of the water that a lawn would use on the site. “If you use those guidelines you need to use low-water plants, and that’s changing everybody’s approach,” she says.

“For low-water plants, I really love the combination of California fuchsia — you can call it Epilobium or you can call it Zauschneria… I really don’t care which. I like ‘Everett’s Choice’ the best of all,” Fleck says. “And combined with it, I really like foothill penstemon, Penstemon heterophyllos. And, with that, my most recent love is ‘Catherine de la Mer.’ It tends to stay more upright. It’s like a lot of perennials… if you don’t give them a haircut occasionally, they flop over.”


“I have always loved the look of Coleonema pulchrum, ‘Sunset Gold’ with any dark leaf Loropetalum or Cordyline,” says Alison Fleck, owner and designer at Simply Perfect Gardens in Benecia, California. The San Francisco Bay designer has been working in horticulture for more than 30 years, focusing on design in the last decade. “They all look best with moderate water and a little bit of protection in the inland valleys. Their ‘pop’ is just spectacular. The lime and maroon… I can’t help myself.”

“When I’m thinking perennials for spring and summer, I would also go with the purples,” says Limoge. “‘May Night’ salvia with ‘Crane’s Bill’ geranium. And any of the peonies. They provide such nice pops of colors. They are short lived, but I love their boldness.”

“I really don’t rely on flowers. It’s a short-term relationship,” Fleck points out. “It’s nice if you have orange and purple flowers right next to each other, but if you have plants that are purple and lime, or purple and silver or dark green and silver, you have at least nine months of interest and frequently all year.”

When summer’s heat sets in, flowers can provide some cool relief. “Nice, cool shades of blue, pink and purple can definitely have a calming, soothing, cooling sense on the landscape, but you have to be careful with what shades you use so they don’t seem too bleached out by the intensity of the summer sun,” says Hancock.

“A few bold accents can help, especially if those accents are highly saturated,” he suggests. “A few annuals that are great for this include salvia ‘Black and Blue’, salvia ‘Grandstand Purple’, and lobelia ‘Lucia Dark Blue’. A few perennials that fit the bill are veronica ‘Royal Candles,’ iris ‘Caesar’s Brother’ and salvia ‘May Night.'”

Photo: Simply Perfect Gardens

Communicating with color

Using color can let your imagination run wild, but communication with the client is essential for a successful project.

“I ask clients what they don’t like,” says Limoge. “Orange can especially be an issue. People either love it or hate it.”

“There are no real rules you have to have with color,” says Hancock. “I’ve heard of people basing their color schemes on things such as school colors or sports teams. When it comes to residential, I always tell people there are no real rules and to do whatever feels best to you as the homeowner who gets to enjoy the garden every day. But in commercial design I feel you do have to have a little more of a plan to prevent your colors from feeling too hodgepodge or crazy.”

“I do have clients who say, ‘I just want a lot of green. I don’t want lime green, I don’t want silver, I just want green,'” Fleck says. “Those people are really looking for lots of different textures. That’s always challenging.”

Sometimes even the best laid plans don’t work out. “I don’t know anybody who hasn’t tried something that just didn’t work… at least on paper,” says Limoge. “I always put photos of plant material together as I am designing. That way I can catch those combos that just don’t flow before we are on-site planting. I think this also happens sometimes when the client is very involved in the plant selection. Not everyone has a good sense of color theory and sometimes it’s hard to steer people in a different direction when they have their mind made up.”

Depending on where a client lives, keep in mind snow and ice in the winter and where it will pile up so you can protect plantings year-round.

And, of course, in a permanent design, a landscape designer must always consider the plant’s finished size. “I had a major discussion with a client who wanted to put a plant that will be 8 by 8 feet in a 3-foot space,” says Fleck. “I told him he would have to be willing to dig it up and toss it when it outgrows the space. They see plants in places like Disneyland, where they dig them up and replace them regularly. Then they want to replicate that in their gardens.”


Mulch Impacts Color, Too

Don’t overlook the color of the soil’s surface when creating your color palette.

“I’ve found that the love affair with tinted mulch has added another dimension to designing with color,” says Alison Fleck, owner and designer at Simply Perfect Gardens in Benecia, California. “The dark purple foliage doesn’t show up on newly-tinted dark mulch.”

With drought such a huge issue in the West, mulches are a now a matter of course in most landscapes. Using ground bark, wood chips or other wood products is a popular option, but the color fades quickly to an unattractive asphalt gray. “The dark brown mulch just fades to a light brown,” Fleck says. “Clients have been asking for the tinted mulches for at least 10 years, but now they are very popular.

“The ground plane really plays into foliage color, and that’s one of the most long-term relationships you are going to have,” Fleck continues. “In the desert areas, they use fines and crushed rock … you can play a lot with those colors. If you have the golden fines, it gives a lot of pop to a lot of different colors.”


And don’t forget maintenance. “Here in the Northeast, we need to take not only lawn and garden maintenance into consideration when designing, but also snow and ice,” says Limoges. “Where will the snow be pushed when the driveway is plowed? When the snow and ice falls off of the roof, where will it land? Will salt be used to melt ice on walkways, driveways or sidewalks? Be sure to plant perennials, grasses or shrubs, such as Annabelle Hydrangea (that get cut back in the fall), in the areas when snow will fall or be pushed. And paying attention to the salt-tolerance of the plant material is important.”

Photo: Simply Perfect Gardens

While creating a colorful landscape is much more than picking up a flat of pansies at your local supplier, it can be a creative and profitable part of your company’s services.


Short Growing Season = Longer View on Color

The growing season sets the limits for Marie Limoge, landscape designer at diStefano Landscape in Jericho, Vermont.

“Because we have such a shot growing season, I use plants that have long blooming cycles,” she says. “For example, hydrangeas will get us from summer to fall. Spireas are also used for their long bloom time. I get excited when new varieties of hydrangea, hosta or heuchera are available.”

Limoge also takes advantage of foliage and texture to create color combinations. “One of my favorite gardens I designed last year had dart’s gold ninebark next to Lime Light hydrangea,” she recalls. “Then I combined it with Black Lace elderberry with a pop of bright red bee balm in front. It was really bold but subtle at the same time. I loved the combination!”

Going into the long fall and winter season, Limoge looks for plants that have interest beyond flowering. “We try to mix in evergreen or plants with interesting berries or bark. One of my favorites is Amelanchier canadenis. It’s the first plant to bloom in spring and has a nice green canopy in the summer. It has beautiful fall color and in winter, it’s multi-stemmed with smooth gray bark,” she says. Limoge also favors river birch and red-twigged dogwood for fall and winter interest.