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How to use colour in your garden

by Gordon Rowland

Gardening magazines and nurseries routinely promote colour-enhanced ‘new plant releases’ while neglecting the subtle interplay of wildflower colours and other elements essential to good design: balance, form, function, pattern, repetition, scale, space, texture, time and, above all, unity.

Where a sense of unity is achieved, this is all too often at the expense of variety. Every leafy suburb features dozens of gardens like this; gardens with an impoverished range of the same few species, high-maintenance flat manicured lawns and high-maintenance clipped hedges. In meaningless curves or straight lines. Lifeless. Predictable. Boring.

I am repelled by the expensive, emotionally and horticulturally sterile gardens filled with box hedging, pleached avenues and mondo grass that have become the norm for many ‘designed’ gardens in Sydney.
Peter Watts, Director, Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Volumes have been published about colour, colour theory and the psychology of colour, from the fifteenth century notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton’s then revolutionary theories in the eighteenth century. Not to mention recently published findings that challenge previous theories.

In practice, I still find it helpful to consider colour (or hue) as deriving from varying proportions of one or more of the three primary colours: red, yellow and blue. The three secondary colours are then orange (red + yellow), green (yellow + blue) and violet (blue + red).

Every shade of every colour includes black and every tint includes white. For example, red plus black equals crimson; red plus white equals pink.

To soften a colour, any colour, add black and white (= grey) in desired proportions. Soft colours are particularly useful in painting or rendering a building exterior to create a subtle, non-intrusive relationship between house and garden. Keeping in mind the above, here are three basic methods for using colour in your garden:
   A green background highlighted with a contrasting colour or contrasting colours. Red and white are popular choices. This method severely limits your choices.
   A palette of colours, selected to create a picture, as for a painter's canvas.
   A mosaic of colours, inspired by the natural landscape.

Whichever method you choose, solid blocks of colour are best avoided.

As the eye is drawn straight to hot colours, especially bright red, avoid using these where viewed at a distance or the far end of a vista. The garden will appear to be shorter and smaller. Red and other hot colours such as orange and yellow, are better used as foreground colours or screened from distant view.

Blues are cool colours and excellent mixers, combining well with other colours. Pale blues are particularly effective at the far end of a vista, where they may blend with the sky and induce a sense of mystery and distance. Used in this way, blues also make the garden appear larger.

Pinks and yellows tend to clash with one another and are generally best kept apart or buffered with blue, green or violet.

Sunlight makes colours appear lighter. For this reason, pale colours and white look best in shade, and they also bring light to a shady corner. Generally speaking, if white is allowed to intermingle with other colours at or below eye-level, it tends to weaken their visual impact. This effect is heightened beneath the harsh light of Australia.


July 13, 2010
Category: Design and ILDA RSS

2 Posted Comments

(1 awaiting approval)
  • Marilyn  Sep 06, 2010 @ 2:48am wrote:

    Really interesting and helpful advice.

  • Nathan  Sep 03, 2010 @ 3:58pm wrote:

    An excellent first article.

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