Picking a garden color scheme is a lot like composing a painting. You have to look at all the components together and make choices about composition and colors as a whole. If you've never successfully composed a painting, or never thought about composing your garden this way, read on.
When you start a painting, you have to choose what colors you want. You generally won't be successful if you choose the whole shebang (think an art car colliding with a train full of house paint in your front yard). It is advisable to understand the color schemes you are drawn to and play to those strengths. Of course, you don't have to have an overall color scheme; you could have a different one for every bed in your yard or you could have an overarching theme if you so desire.
In a beginning painting class, you would likely encounter six different color schemes that will always be successful.
Monochromatic: Monochromatic refers to a color palette with one key color that is shaded with black and white. For example, in a garden a monochromatic color scheme would play out with all different shades of blue; from light baby blue to dark flax blue.
Analogous: In an analogous color scheme, you can only pick colors within 3 wedges of the wheel from each other. This could be purple, red, and orange, blue, green and yellow, or red, orange, and yellow, for example. You'll find that these come more naturally when choosing colors, because most people are drawn to colors that are closely related.
Complementary: Complements are opposites on the color wheel. As I tell my art students, Broncos, Vikings, and Christmas colors: orange and blue, yellow and purple, and red and green. The benefit of planting, or painting, with complements is that they tend to pop out especially well next to each other. The eye is trained to see a color brighter next to its complement.
Split complements: Split complements are more of an advanced color scheme. For a split complement, you choose one main color and find its opposite on the color wheel, then find the colors that are directly next to it on either side. For example choosing orange as the main color, the opposite is blue and the split complements of orange are green and purple. Split complements tend to look more disjointed unless executed with a special attention to nuance.
Warms: Warm color schemes consist of colors of the sun: yellow, orange, red, and red-violet. In the garden, this gives you a wide range of flower choices from cream to pink to burgundy. Warm colors tend to wake up the senses or imply energy to the brain.
Cools: Cool color schemes are made up of colors of the ocean: blue, green, and blue-violet. Any shade of blue, periwinkle, violet, and lavender will fall under this category. Cool colors are soothing and more peaceful looking in a painting as well as in the garden.
Don't forget to address the color of your house, fence, and trim when choosing a color scheme. If you are planning to paint your house to help your garden color scheme, make sure you do your research. The best advice I have for you is to drive around your town as much as possible and see what you are drawn to. Make note of the color of houses you usually say, ‘Oh I love that' to. The best artists are thieves, after all!
Once you know that your house color is acceptable and will stay the same for a while, then you can begin to incorporate it into your color scheme. Keep in mind that a periwinkle house might be hard to plan around, while a periwinkle door just adds character to an already well thought out garden. You can use your house or shed color as the focal point, the neutral background, or as the accent in any color scheme you choose. Just don't overlook it in the grand scheme.
Be wary of how your colors play off of each other within the whole garden composition. Just as with a painting, the foreground, middle ground and background must all work harmoniously with each other. For example, if your house is in the background of a particular bed, make sure that the plants viewed in front of it are pleasing with the paint color.
Planning a garden color scheme isn't as difficult as most people think; you just have to know a few important rules. If you obey these simple schemes you will have a head start on a beautiful garden.
All photos copyrighted by Susanne Talbert except for the following:
Black Eyed Susan - jmorth
Lobelia - Ulrich
Stella D'oro Daylily - Meig
Yellow Door - morguefile (fieryn)
Black Gamecock Iris - RikerBear
Color wheel (thumbnail) - morguefile (ariadna)
About Susanne Talbert
I garden in beautiful Colorado Springs, half a mile from Garden of the Gods. Since we bought our first house two years ago, I have been busy revamping my 1/4 acre of ignored decomposed granite.
My garden passions include water gardening, vines, super-hardy perennials, and native xerics. By day, I am a high school ceramics teacher as well as a ceramicist and painter.