Friday, March 21, 2014

"Throw Out The Color Wheel," When Designing Landscapes.

Sweeter words were never said during a seminar at the recent New England Grows show, and with spring coming soon (I hope), I felt this was a good topic to discuss.

David Culp
, a horticulturist, plantsman, designer and lover of all things garden-related lectured on his recent book, The Layered Garden, and put forth many of his theories and beliefs regarding garden design.  I was relieved to hear someone, who was obviously passionate about plants and gardens, not lay out one rule after another about how to build a garden.

My favorite line during his lecture was to "throw out the color wheel!"  Can I have an amen!

Simple analogous colors and white are a
soothing, cool combination.  ©2014BDG
Now before I get too far and some people get a little twisted, let me put this in perspective.  As a designer, I believe that gardens and landscapes should be built for the enjoyment of the owner, as well as friends and family that they bring to their homes, and not the designer or any publications.  All good designs are derived from a well developed process with rules for materials, construction techniques and plantings.  Many of these rules must be obeyed, but many can be bent or broken.  While this is not  definitive discussion of color theory, it is intended to get people to focus on what appeals to their own tastes.

Chartreuse and violet form a bright
complementary combination. ©2014BDG
While this topic can expand into all sorts of areas, lets just focus on color.  The most passive approach is to take color cues from nature, with native plants this can be very dynamic with regard to color and texture.  Often people think that native means boring but that does not have to be the case.

The color wheel is used by designers and it is the basis for combining colors in the house, garden, painting, clothing and any other field that uses color.

The most basic rules to the color wheel are that analogous colors work in combination and complementary colors work in combination.  Analogous colors are those close to each other on the wheel.  While colors in nature rarely match the wheel, orange/yellow and red/purple are examples of analogous colors that work together.  Complementary colors are those on opposite sides of the wheel such as red/green, blue/orange and yellow/purple. A mix of analogous colors will appear more gentle and subtle, while complementary will have significant contrast and make each color stand out.

Pink and yellow do not fit the 'rule' but I love it in this
Lantana and you also see it in a lot of roses. ©2014BDG
When I think of the many uses of complementary colors I think of wonderful yellow/purple plant combinations, or the Christmas red/green colors.  On the less attractive side I am reminded of the hideous New York Mets orange/blue uniforms or the worst combination ever to hit the home and clothing industry of brown/turquoise.

But here is the rub, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and others may like what I don't like.  Once people have an understanding of color they can make their own choices.  Take a look at this page on Cornell University's discussion of color for a very basic introduction.  The modern day mother of color in the garden is Gertrude Jekyll, and for more on her life and work you can check out the website of her estate at Gertrude Jekyll.

Those lovely NY Mets uniforms.  Technically right
and by the rules, but you have to be a Met fan to
love these. ©
There are so many more levels to using color and more complicated combinations on the color wheel, as well as discussion of hue, warm/cool and much more.  My point in this post is that no matter how many rules and constructions there are, at the end of the day it should come down to what appeals to your eye.  Go to a paint shop and 'borrow' a bunch of chips.  Find colors and hues that really appeal to you.  You can buy tester colors and put them on paper for a closer look.

Do you like hot oranges, yellows and reds but also like pastel pink and violet.  There are ways to lay out plants to make a crazy combination like this to work, but it involves breaking the rules, and I don't care.  

Pink, blue and yellow works in the stark, early
season garden with no other plants.  ©2014BDG
I like color in my garden and my home and that is my tendency while designing, to incorporate as much color throughout the season into gardens.  I don't have a beige or white wall in my house, but I know that many people like simple color schemes or white gardens.  Knowing what you like and sometimes kicking rules to the curb is the best solution.  

The color wheel is an important place to start in any form of design, but it is important not to be tied down because you can always throw out the color wheel!

White will often make other colors stand out and
be more prominent.  ©2014BDG


  1. Lots of great points there Reid. A good example is in your last photo, with the echinacea flower - rich burnt orange centre mixed with pastel rosy-pink petals. Most people would reject this color combo for their garden but nature knows better!

    1. Nature is always a good guide, but sometimes it is nice to just go crazy.

  2. Your article is very helpful thank you very much for sharing .

  3. To hell with all those rules and wheels!! Gardeners should do what makes them happy. That's it. Nothing else is required.

    1. But you are a teacher, and rules are everything. Maybe you are an anarchist outside of school...

    2. I'm an anarchist within school, too. By proving myself effective, I'm left alone to do what works as opposed to what I've been told to do. My admin leaves me alone because they can't argue with the results. I follow the rules that are logical and lead to a meaningful end, such as 'Don't red lights'. I ignore the ones based on sheepish stupidity.

    3. I meant to say "Don't run red lights". :o)