Design School: Using Color in the Garden

Design School: Using Color in the Garden

Design School: Using Color in the Garden
A colorful garden with contrasting orange and purple flowers

Photos by Monrovia: Doreen Wynja

Let's first get this out of the way when considering how to most effectively use color in your garden: There is no right or wrong when it comes to color in the garden. Gardens are about joy and beauty so plant any combo that makes you happy. 

That said, there are some useful guidelines for how to approach choosing a color scheme for your backyard which we hope will help you tap into your creative side as you allow your inner artist to shine in the garden.

First, we'll start with some informative discussion about the color wheel and color theory. Our goal here is to help you see your entire outdoor space and create a plant color palette that completes the picture. 

(Above) The hot, bright orange of crocosmia pops against the cool, contrasting color of purple lavender in this garden designed by Robin Parsons of Spring Greenworks (check the color wheel below to see how well these two shades play as contrasts on opposite sides of the wheel). See more of this contrasting garden below. 

Then, we'll dive into 3 professionally designed gardens and color design tips from their designers. Finally, find some fun plant color palette ideas to jump start your creative flow.

Nature gave us a big box of crayons. Get ready to play with color. 

Let's Get Creative: How to Use Color in the Garden

Color Theory 101

While we could write an entire story about color theory and how the brain sees and responds to color, here's the basic idea when it comes to understanding color combinations.

There are three primary colors—blue, red, and yellow — that can be mixed in different ways to make all other colors. A color wheel allows you to see which colors work together at a glance. 

There are at least six different color schemes to choose from and they mostly refer to positions on the color wheel. Here are the top four:

  • Complementary combos use colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. These are high contrast schemes that visually excite. (Purple and yellow are an example.)
  • Analogous combos use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. These blend well for more visually harmonious schemes. (Purple and red are an example.)
  • Primary combos are just that. Red, blue and yellow. 
  • Monochromatic combos use one color and its various values (tints and shades). These are visually soothing. 

So what does all of this mean?  Understanding the basics of color can help you to create pleasing color combinations. This can help you to make the mood you are looking for in your garden. 

Image: iStock/Getty Image Plus

How Three Top Designers Use Color

We asked three of our favorite garden designers for examples and advice about using color in the garden. You will notice none of them shy away from broad strokes of color for a most painterly effect. Below you'll see three different examples of how color can be used to different effects: boldly monochromatic, soft and sweet pastels (with a surprise pop of color), and a study in elegant color contrast.

1. Bold Monochrome


In her personal garden, Susan Calhoun of Plantswoman Design illustrates an example of how to use analogous colors for a big impact. Notice how her stand of  ‘Blue Leap’ agapanthus‘Hidcote’ English lavender, and hardy geranium 'Blogold' Blue Sunrise blends with the reddish foliage shrubs beyond for a soothing effect.  


Agapanthus ‘Blue Leap’ , Red Leaved Banana, Zingiber mioga ‘White Feather’ (a type of ginger), and Persicaria ‘Golden Arrow’ (in the knotweed family)

Moving further into this Pacific Northwest garden, you'll find that Susan selected plants for their colors and forms, but also because they can withstand months of almost daily rain. While there are some bright colors here, there are no jarring "pops" of color. This illustrates a great lesson for how to crank up the impact with the addition of just a few statement plants. 

Check out this peaceful retreat and this woodland garden also designed by Susan to see more examples of how she works her magic with color. Do you love the look of a simple color palette? Here's an entire design story about the power of a simple plant palette

Get This Look

Aromatico™ Blue 
Imp. Lavender

Deep purple flower spikes above mounds of gray-green foliage provide great color to the front of shrub borders. Full sun. Up to 20" tall and 12"  wide. Zones 5 - 9.

Red Leaved 

Palm-like plant with huge, wine-red and bronze tones broad leaves that fan out from a single trunk. Full sun. Up to 15" tall, 10' wide. Zones: 10-11.

Purple Potion® 

Noted for its clusters of deep biolet blooms — a shade that's unique for agapanthus. Full sun. Up to 12" tall and 26" wide. Zones 7-10. 

2. Soft and Sweet

joe pye weed at front of colorful garden
hydrangeas and grasses in a stairway border

Based in Portland, OR, Wes Younie of Wesley Younie Landscape Design is both a fine artist and a landscape designer. In this romantic garden set on a sloped site, he used cues from the existing structures to create a palette of complementary colors.  Hydrangeas, Joe Pye weed, olive trees, grasses, and sedums in soft purple, pink, and cream bring the blue hue of the house into the landscape for an always-been-there look. (We love those touches of silvery-green!) 


While the mood of this garden is cool and misty, Wes shows us how to shake things up and keep the eye moving with a shot of yellow in the midst of it all.

A perfect example of complementary colors, this stand of Autumn Joy sedum and Rudkeckia is playful but also has an easy co-existence and harmonious combination with the space. 

Wes used just a few different types of plants, but he uses them all en masse. Other plant here include:

Golden Japanese Forest Grass

Seaside Serenade® Cape Hatteras Hydrangea

Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)

Phenomenal French Lavender

(Read advice on how to approach color from Wes below.)

Get This Look

Fruiting Olive

Self-fruiting olive prized for highly aromatic oil content, brown fruit, and silvery- green foliage. Full sun. Up to 40' tall. Zones 8-11.

Black-Eyed Susan

Bright, daisy-like, golden yellow flowers with black centers. Tolerates heat, humidity, and clay soil. Full sun. Up to 2' tall and wide. Zones 3 - 9.

Autumn Joy 

Large, plate-like flower clusters that start pink, then gracefully age to rosy russet-red in the fall. Full sun. Up to 2' tall and wide. Zones 4 - 11.

Seaside Serenade® Cape 
Hatteras Hydrangea

Long-lasting ruby red color is not influenced by soil pH. A compact variety with bright green, thick foliage, perfect for massing in the landscape or for use in containers. Partial shade. Up to 3' tall and wide. Zones 4-9. 

Dwarf Joe
Pye Weed

A compact Joe Pye Weed with showy, mauve-purple flower heads that bloom from late summer to early fall. Provides spectacular late summer color and vertical interest. Part shade to part sun. Up[ to 4' tall, 3' wide. Zones 4-9.

Golden Japanese 
Forest Grass

Slender stems hold bright yellow leaves with thin green stripes, creating a tiny bamboo-like effect. Foliage becomes pink-tinged as the weather cools in autumn. Part shade to part sun. Up to 18" tall and wide. Zones 4-9.

3. A Study in Contrasts

outdoor dining room with colorful garden around it
outdoor dining room with colorful garden around it

The color palette for a garden starts with two considerations: to what colors are the owners drawn and what works in the space. In this Pacific Northwest garden, designed by Robin Parsons of Spring Greenworks, drought-tolerant color that can take the heat, including Ceanothus, Crocosmia, dwarf conifers, hardy Fuchsias, Rhododendrons, and Salvias reflects both.

As temperatures have risen in the summer in this region, Robin has begun to use plants that were once a challenge to grow, such as Grevillea, olives, and jasmine. Colors were selected to balance with the pale yellow exterior paint color. She drew inspiration from that color for the muted palette of purples, silvers and blues and added doses of contrasting yellow and red culled from the lively furnishings inside the house. 

Bluestone flooring and ledge stone walls along with scattered boulders are important neutrals that work to further amplify the colors of this garden. The fence was stained a deep charcoal so that it disappears behind the greenery and blooms. The entire effect is a jewel box of color and texture. 


Under the dappled light of trees, this border is a study in contrast. Cool colors (blues and purples) and pale shades like the Helianthemum 'Henfield's Brilliant' in the foreground create a sense of depth in the garden. The dark smokebush recedes allowing the brilliant blue hydrangeas to take center stage. 

Get the look of this garden with these plants: Bronze Carpet Stonecrop, Dwarf, Strawberry Tree, Blue Jean Baby Russian Sage, Golf Ball Pittosporum, and Lilla Smoke Bush

Choosing plants with multi-seasonal interest and ornamental attributes such as colored foliage, flowers, berries, and bark keeps this garden interesting year-round.

See Robin's entire Medina garden project here.

Get This Look

Black Tower 

Burgundy foliage on an upright shrub, with -pink spring flowers and blackish red fall berries adorded by birds. Full sun. Up to 8' tall and 4' wide. Zones: 4-8.

Orange New Zealand 

Finely textured, bronze-green leaves age to electric orange in the cool season. Full to part sun. Up to 24" tall and wide. Zones: 6 - 10.

Bronze Carpet 

This beautiful trailing succulent forms a lush, ground-hugging mat of bronze-red foliage that provides contrast to green or gray-leaved plants. Part to full sun. Up to 6" tall, 24" wide. Zones 3-9.

Smoke Bush

A dwarf form with frothy plumes of pink flowers that rise above the wine-red foliage in the summer. Oval leaves turn shades of bright orange, coral, and red in the fall. Part to full sun. Up to 4' tall and wide. Zones 4-10.

All Gold Japanese 
Forest Grass

A  colorful groundcover for shady areas. Slender stems hold bright golden yellow foliage. Excellent color and texture for mixed borders, containers, and mass plantings. Part shade to part sun. Up to 18" tall and wide. Zones 4-9.

Blue Enchantress® 

Striking ruby-black stems support big mophead flowers on this reblooming hydrangea. Partial sun. Up to 5' tall and wide. Zones: 4 - 9.

Tips for Using Color from the Pros

As seen above, Wes Younie has a way with color in the garden. We asked him to share his top five tips for how to use color to its best effect.

  • Consider the entire picture:  When deciding on a color scheme, first look around the entire site and take in the hues of the house, any masonry or stonework, and the existing large plants such as mature trees and shrubs. You may decide you want to blend your colorful plants with this scheme or perhaps go bold and create great contrast. Either way, your colorful plants are part of the story, not the entire story!
  • Limit your color palette: Less is more when it comes to color in the garden. And more is more when massing plants. Choose several dominant colors and accent them with subordinate colors. You do not want the colors to clash or compete with each other for your attention. 
  • Use lots of just a few plants: This is a tough one for us plant lovers, but remember the rule of repetition. A design will look too busy unless you repeat colors and shapes throughout the composition. It is always more striking to have large masses of the same plant. There is something magical when you see a huge border or meadow of one plant. 
  • Consider how light impacts color throughout the season: Pastels are gorgeous under the slanting rays of the sun in the spring.  However, as the sun moves directly overhead for most of the day in summer, those pretty colors can get washed out. Think about adding deeper shades that bloom later in the season to get the full effect of your color scheme. That doesn't necessarily mean adding orange to your pastel palette; it could just mean adding an analogous color such as dark purple. 
  • Add neutrals to warm up or cool down a color scheme: White, silver, and green (flowers or foliage) help to stop the eye from being exhausted by all that color. White creates depth and makes other colors look richer. Green is the perfect backdrop to make colors pop. Silver picks up and bounces light creating gleam and glow.

3 Timeless Color Palettes

Romantic: Pretty Pastels

Grace N' Grit™ 
Pink BiColor Shrub Rose

Pink and white bicolor roses on a fuss-free shrub that will endure the trials of a long, hot summer. Full sun. Up to 5' tall and wide. Zones: 4 - 9.

Seaside Serenade® 
Outer Banks Hydrangea

Delicate lacecap blooms smother this compact hydrangea. An excellent repeat bloomer. Partial shade. Up to 4' tall and wide. Zones: 4 - 9.

Ice N' Roses® 
Rose Hellebore

New hybrid has perked up traditional drooping flowers with blooms facing outwards and upwards. Partial sun. Up to 2' tall and wide. Zones 5 - 9. 

Riotous: Spicy and Bold

Red Yucca

Compact selection rarely sets seedpods, meaning more prolific flowering over a very long season. Full sun. Up to 2' tall and wide. Zones: 5 - 10

Brown Eyed Girl Helianthus

Heat tolerant, non-invasive annual produces over 1,000 flowers in a single season, from spring until first frost. Full sun. 

Sienna Sunrise® 
Heavenly Bamboo

Intensely red new foliage cools to a lush green in summer. Fiery red highlights reappear in fall and winter. Full sun. Up to 4' tall, 2' wide. Zones: 6 - 11.

Moonlight: White and Silver

white panicle hydrangea flowers

Scent from Heaven™ 
Angel of Purity Dianthus

Exceptionally fragrant frilly white double flowers on compact mounds of gray-green foliage. Full to partial sun. Up to 8" tall and wide. Zones 4 - 9. 

Candy Apple™ 

Same show-stopping lime green flower clusters as Limelight, but a more compact form. Full to partial sun. Up to 5' tall and wide. Zones: 4 - 8.

Big Ears 
Lamb's Ear

Silver-green foliage which forms a dense groundcover of thick, soft, velvety rosettes. Up to 1' tall, 2' wide. Full to partial sun. Zones: 4 - 9. 

Two Trending Palettes

Smoke and Soot: Goth Gardens

Black Beard 
Mondo Grass

Dramatically grass-like perennial with lilac spiky blooms followed by dark, nearly black fall berries. Partial to full sun. Up to 1' tall and wide. Zones 5 - 10.

Chocolate Fountain Sedum

Dark chocolate-colored, succulent foliage salted with rose-pink summer blooms. Full to partial sun.  Up to 15" tall and wide. Zones 4 - 9.


Thornless dwarf blackberry that presents a fireworks-like display of large, juicy berries in the summer. Full sun. Up to 4 ft tall and wide. Zones 4 - 9.  

The Bronze Age: Edgy Metallics

European Meadow 

Grass-like tuft of pencil thin, blue-green stems develops airy, reddish-brown flowers in early summer. Full sun. Up to 3' tall and wide. Zones 3 - 9.

Chocolate Shogun 

Vvery dark purple-brown serrated foliage with pale pinkish white plumes. Partial shade. Up to 40" tall, 24" wide. Zones 4 - 8.

Orange New Zealand 

Finely textured, bronze-green leaves age to electric orange in the cool season. Full to part sun. Up to 2' tall and wide. Zones 6 - 10

After all the hard work of laying out a garden, installing hardscape, plotting paths of desire, planting structural trees and shrubs, the fun starts when you get to add the color. Everyone can be creative with color in the garden or in containers if you know what you like and try to follow some guideance from the pros.

And remember, every "successful" garden is the product of experimentation, trial and error, ace it and fail it. This season, spend some time observing your garden and use color to tell your entire story.  

Resources for Using Color in the Garden

Plant Combo Inspo and Design Lessons

Free plant color palettes: Check out our annual garden color guide, Shades of Beautiful, complete with 10 fresh plant color palettes for the year. 

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2024-02-23 17:31:00