YORK, Pa. — “Most people start gardening because they want color in their garden. They don’t think about other aspects of design, they want color.”
Annette MaCoy, Cumberland County consumer horticulture educator and master gardener coordinator for Cumberland and Perry counties, recently taught a seminar at the Pennsylvania Garden Show of York (PAGSY) about using color design in the garden.
A self-described “always learning gardener,” MaCoy said she pored over books of garden color theory before she taught the seminar. However, after reading the books, she still felt that the average home gardener has one major feature going for them: their own instinct.
Go With Your Instincts
“Forget the rules, really — use the colors that you like, it’s your garden,” MaCoy said. “Most of us have some innate color sense — we may not really realize it, it may not be as highly developed — but you’ll know if you put some colors together, if you don’t like it together or you like it. You’ll have (a) sense of that, so trust your instincts.”
Besides instincts, however, MaCoy did say trial and error could help yield an eye-catching garden. “If you want to experiment, try different color schemes ... in containers first.”
Additionally, she said, “observe and learn from nature’s colors and color combinations. Do what makes you happy in your garden. Combine them the way you like. If it makes you happy, it’s a beautiful color scheme.”
MaCoy does recommend grouping colors for more drama.
“Any color is going to look better and show up better to your eye en masse than having dots of color here and there. Dots of colors are unrestful —your eye tends to flit from one color to another — while en masse gives your eye a little bit of an area to rest on.”
Also, she said, think about where you are planting your colors. For example, whites and pinks are showier than other colors in a shady area, since they are colors that pop out the best in a dark area.
The Art of Garden Color
According to MaCoy, color theories can be “somewhat contradictory, complex and bewildering.” After all, she said, “color is subjective — we all respond to and perceive color differently. It’s very hard to pin down a color theory that works for everyone.”
A few rules of thumb could work as a guide, however, she noted.
Taking the visible spectrum and connecting it end to end makes the color wheel, a useful tool in deciphering which colors might look best together, she said.
For example, colors directly opposite each other on the wheel are called “complementary” colors, and provide the most contrast. Examples of this would be purples with yellows (including red-violet and yellow-green); greens with reds (including blue-green with red-orange); and blues with oranges (including blue-violet with yellow-orange).
“Warm colors” such as red, orange and yellow are colors that draw the eye and attract attention. They can be seen from further away and appear to be closer than they are. Using these colors creates an overall effect of a warm, active, lively and energetic feel.
Greens, blues and purples are “cool colors” and tend to blend into their surroundings. Cool colors will recede into the background and appear to be further away than they are. Their effect is quiet, calm, subtle and soothing.
Using a color scheme to help organize a garden can yield pleasing results. For example, one popular scheme is the monochromatic color scheme, which uses basically one color.
“White, because it’s such a reflective color, is often best used by itself, in limited quantity or combined with grays,” MaCoy said. “White doesn’t necessarily always blend well with other colors.”
An analogous color scheme is the use of two or three colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel. If the color wheel was divided into quarters, each quarter wedge would be an analogous color scheme. Examples of this scheme would be warm yellow into some cooler greens or pinks, purples, and blues grouped together.
However, MaCoy said, “polychromatic ends up in most of our gardens, using a little bit of a whole bunch of different colors.”
A flower’s color has a purpose other than just being pleasing to the human eye.
Flowers exhibit color to attract pollinating insects such as honey bees and native bees, which transfer pollen from plant to plant. The pollinators’ reward is nectar and, for bees, pollen as a food source. The reward for the plant is a transfer of pollen, which allows fertilization to occur so that its fruit and seeds can be formed.
Flowers often have patterns or markings to guide pollinators to nectar and pollen. Pansey blooms have lines radiating inward, for example, and foxglove flowers sport splotches of white that provide a stepping-stone path to the center of the flower.
Besides being attracted to a flower’s sweet scent, bees generally prefer white, blue and yellow flowers. They can’t see very far and they find flowers by looking for contrast against green. Bees rarely visit red flowers since they don’t see red very well.
On the other hand, birds, which don’t have a good sense of smell, rely on sight to attract them to flowers, and prefer intense primary colors such as red, white and blue. Hummingbirds, especially, like red, tubular flowers.