Color in the Garden Design -

Painting with Plants
by Alice Bowe
by Alice Bowe

Alice Bowe is an award winning English landscape and garden designer with particular expertise in sustainable landscape architecture and green garden design.

Alice writes regularly for The Times and The Garden Design Journal as well as running a successful Garden Design Studio ( and the garden accessory shop Garden Boutique (

Her contemporary garden designs and painterly planting schemes have been featured in numerous publication including: Gardens Illustrated, New York Spaces, The English Garden, Homes and Gardens, Eve Magazine and House Beautiful.

You can read her planting design blog at

You can read her green garden design blog at

March 2, 2008

How to successfully use colour in painterly planting schemes

Colour is one of the most emotive aspects of any garden and although garden history has a long association with artists as garden designers, its importance and effect upon the garden's audience is often underestimated.

Speaking in a subliminal text, the effect of colour upon our perception and emotions is astounding. By understanding some of the fundamental principles of colour theory it can be employed as a tool to manipulate the garden experience.

Emotionally, the different moods induced by colours are commonly known:

o Red: passion, heat, love, blood, excitement, passion, danger

o Yellow: warmth, sunshine, happiness

o Blue: dignity, coolness, melancholy

o Orange: playfulness, warmth, vibrancy

o Green: nature, environment, fresh, cool, growth

o Purple: wealth, royalty, sophistication,

o Pink: soft, sweet, feminine

o Black: sophistication, elegance, seduction, death

o White: purity, cleanliness, lightness, virginal, youthful

But did you know that some colours can have very opposite effects depending on their tone or saturation? For example light yellow-green is associated with freshness and youth, but the darker shade olive is associated with decay. In the same way a light sky blue is often associated with tranquility, but the deeper value indigo can be associated with depression.

Spatially, colour also dictates where and how plants should be placed. Warm colours such as reds and yellows tend to move toward you while cool colours such as blues recede. What is perhaps less well known is the fact that saturated colours, especially red cannot be seen at a distance, looking increasingly black as the distance increases. This is particularly true for men and so it would make little sense to place red at the far end of the garden. De-saturated colours such as whites and pastels have the opposite effect and can easily be seen from a distance. They can therefore prove very useful not only to lighten dark corners, but also to draw visitors through the length of the garden.

To complicate matters further, the perception of colour is also dependant upon light and so the colour can appear to alter dramatically in different situations. In the sunshine, the pupil is very small, but in the shade, it dilates and colours have greater opportunity to saturate the retina. For example, a yellow rose that looks bleached in the sun, becomes a warm, golden glow in the shade. In natural daylight, brighter colours attract our eyes first and therefore are very useful as an accent. In lower light the cones in our eyes that distinguish colour are less efficient and so it is the rods (which distinguish black and white contrast) that dictate the way we see the garden. If you intend to view your garden in lower light levels, say at dusk, you will need to be aware that bright colours will fade into the shadows and it will be the paler colours that will shimmer out of the fading light.

If this all seems too much to take in - just remember, the best way to learn how to use colour effectively in the garden is to have a go. For the colour novice, I would suggest beginning your experimentations with pink. Pink is very easy colour to use in the garden and the pale shades can be used to lighten shady areas with the more saturated tones providing accents. Best of all, with such an abundance of pink plants available, you will be spoilt for choice - so get out in the garden start putting all that theory into practice.

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