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Quick tips on color in the garden

Published February 14, 2012

Using color effectively can create a feeling of excitement or a sense of peaceful calm in a garden.

"Colors can make a large space more intimate yet make a small space feel larger," said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Martha Smith. "Simply understanding the importance of color and how to use it can change the overall look and mood of your garden."

Color is a personal matter, and there are no set rules to follow. The following guidelines can be bent to satisfy personal taste.

When planning a garden, think of it as a three-dimensional painting and the plant colors as colors on an artist's palette. Some colors will dominate and be spread with broad-brush strokes, whereas small dabs of others will give depth and dimension. Try to envision how you want the entire garden to look.

Have a color plan. Do you like a monochromatic color scheme where all the flowers share the same pigment? An example would be red, pink, and burgundy impatiens planted among pink and red astilbe. Perhaps you prefer a rich tapestry of many colors.

A color wheel is handy. A complementary scheme uses colors that are directly opposite each other on the wheel. Examples are red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet. Some very striking combinations can be made with complements.

"To brighten a shady area, use light colors such as white, light pinks, or pale blues," said Smith. "Dark colors tend to get lost in shady areas. You can still use deep colors, but be sure to use lighter colors around or behind them to provide contrast so that they will stand out and be seen."

For maximum effect, think about how the plant colors will blend or contrast with the surroundings. For example, deep red geraniums or red barberries planted against red brick will not stand out as much as lighter colors.

Think about the colors of your home. If the exterior is a neutral color (beige, gray, or white) you have a relatively easy task because you can use just about any color scheme. If, however, it is accented with a colorful trim, you may want to pick colors that echo the trim color or complement it. Light blue trim could be complemented with yellow or orange marigolds or echoed with dark blue petunias. Just as interior decorators use three or four colors as a theme throughout a home, "exterior decorators" can do the same.

"Theme colors used with repetition will unify different garden areas just as they unify the rooms of a house," Smith explained. "For example, your theme colors are yellow and white. Adding group plantings of yellow marigolds throughout your gardens can tie different areas together.

"Repeating the same colors but in different plant types can create the same effect. Work with the yellow marigolds and plant golden barberry, yellow daylilies and black-eyed susans in other garden areas to offer visual color connections. In the shade, pick these colors up with yellow hosta and Golden Hakone Grass. Include white flowers such as white phlox, shasta daisies and white petunias to complete your theme."

Smith added that it is also important to think about your viewing distance. Dark or cool colors such as blue and purple will recede. They get lost if viewed from across the yard or in low light. Bright colors or warm colors such as yellow and orange achieve the opposite effect; they come toward you and are highly visible in low light.

"If your garden is located away from your viewing area, cool colors will be hard to see," she said. "Choose warm colors for greater visual impact. This same concept influences the perception of garden size. Proper color selection can help make a small area look larger and a large area appear smaller. If you are dealing with a small area, cool colors recede and can make the edges appear to fall back, giving the illusion of a larger space. Warm colors come toward you so that same small space can appear even smaller. Plant warm colors in distant gardens so they appear closer."

Colors can affect our emotions. Warm colors are exciting and stimulate our senses; cool colors are calming and relax us.

"As you plan your gardens, think about color and the mood you want to create and the surroundings you want to accent," said Smith. "Incorporate color repetition to help unify the garden. Simply understanding the importance of color and how to use it can change the overall look and mood of your garden."

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