February 18, 2011

Color Pairs

On these cold snowy winter days I've been gardening inside.  Not houseplants.  Not seed starting.  I'm gardening in books.

I'm reading Tracy DiSabato Aust's book The Well-Designed Mixed Garden.

Her section on color theory got me thinking about what I have planted in my own garden.  My design has focused on trees and woody plants --- their form, leaves, structure, their function in the garden (fruit / fall color / shade / screening) and height.  I then plunked perennials in between the woody plants and called it a garden.  Some of it turned out really nice. 

Now, reading the actual theory behind garden design and color pairings, I'm thinking I should take a look at what I've done.  Have I followed any of the recommended color pairings?  It turns out I have, but honestly, most of it was pure accident and the happy collaboration of the plants themselves.

A classic pairing of intense cool purple and soft warm peach

Cool and warm again with blue gray lambs ear and golden Hakone grass

Wine colored drumstick alliums, this time against a hotter orange Helenium

The sweetness of pink and white are tempered with a gray blue spruce and neutral green foliage

Ruby red lobelia and pink zinnias are analogous (near) shades, really almost the same color

Orange zinnias and blue caryopteris are opposites and naturally complementary

Deep red penstemon foliage under a chartreuse leaved Japanese maple contrast beautifully

It turns out my untutored eye knew what was soothing and what popped, and lo and behold, those successes actually followed color theory guidelines.

It's more than just using hot and cool colors together.  The book delves into intensity, hue and value, and the things that affect them, such as distance and reflectivity.  The last pairing above of the 'Huskers Red' penstemon and the Japanese maple works well because the red hue is a saturated value and the maple is a light reflective value and we're getting that contrast as well as the color contrast.  There's more.... but some basic reading tells me why this works.

But it hasn't been all goodness and joy.... there have been some bad pairings in my garden, and they clash, just as the guidelines tell us they would.  For example, pink and yellow, adjacent on the red-pink-orange-yellow section of the color wheel, do not play nicely together.
This is a very jarring combo -- bubblegum pink snapdragons and yellow allium moly
The snapdragon and the little yellow onion are each pretty plants on their own.  Just not so near each other.

And it's not that they are too bright.  A softer shade of pink and a mellower shade of yellow-gold in autumn is even more off-putting, as the witch hazel and hardy mums below show:
This color combo doesn't work, and the mums will have to move next year

It turns out garden design is intuitive.  There are specific and predictable reasons why pairings look good, and a sophisticated and complex theory about why they do, but the bottom line is: you know it when you see it.


  1. Hi Laurrie, Looks like you had fun skiing. When it comes to color I rely on my instincts much as you have done. In the garden, my successful color combinations are as much about chance as anything else. Still it is not a bad idea to understand the science why something works. Enjoy your weekend.

  2. I have a similar book about colour and it's great to see pictures of colours side by side and see what jives for me or not. I had the same situation where some of my pairings turned out to comply with the colours suggested but others did not. I did find though that some of the suggested colours don't really work for me, while others, like your yellow and pink I actually really like!

  3. Laurrie, I love your pairings, especially the snapdragons and alliums. Tracy's book does give a great overview of color theory that is so easy to understand. I often suggest the book to people for that chapter alone.

  4. You certainly did a fine job of pairing, but nature has a way of pairing too. Very little looks bad when designed by nature. Lighting has a lot to do with how the colors relate. In shade some go together you would not expect.

  5. Jennifer, thanks! I have come to realize most of my "garden design" is really chance combinations.

    Marguerite, I'm glad you like the yellow / pink combination. The more I look at the photo the more it grows on me... but it was very disturbing in the garden when I first noticed it.

    Debbie, thank you. There is a lot in Tracy's book. Good info with a ton of pictures to show what she's talking about.

    Donna, I'm just learning about lighting, and it really makes a difference whether the plants are in low light or not... some colors (and the whole effect) change completely!

  6. Oh yeah ~ pale pink and orangey tones do not go together. Ask me how I know. Those have been accidents that were not happy! ~ they made me feel like I needed a Tums.

    I love your combination of blue spruce and white and pink. That's beautiful. The purple allium with the peach looks great too.

  7. I really like the Lambs ear and the grass. As much as I love the brilliant colors and blossoms of a well planted garden, for some reason it's the green, yellow, blue combinations of leaf patterns that really catch my eye. That's why my favorites are usually the shade gardens (typical for a tree guy I guess).

  8. Sweetbay, good to know you've made some pink and orangey acciddents too!

    Forest Keeper, I like the lambs ear and forest grass too. Unfortunately it gets hot sun all afternoon, so I'll have to see if I can keep it thriving where it is.

  9. I love the oranges and blues...I actually had to check back to see if you were posting pictures from the book or your garden :-)

  10. Marie: thanks for stopping by. I can't believe anyone would confuse my shots for published professional photos illustrating a book! thanks :)


Sorry about requiring code verification -- I experimented with turning it off to make commenting easier, and I got too much spam. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to type in silly codes. I appreciate hearing from you.