Color Theory in Landscape Design

Influence How Your Yard Looks and Feels by Implementing Color Theory

Tertiary colors in a simple color wheel.
Tertiary colors in a simple color wheel. David Beaulieu

A brief overview, at least, of color theory is indispensable to any introduction to landscape design. Meanwhile, for the practical application of color theory, flower photos are immeasurably helpful. I provide both in the present article: on the first two pages, a brief look at color theory, and on Page 3, links to flower photos that will give you ideas for using reds, pinks (a tint of red), yellows, blues, purples, lavenders (a tint of purple) oranges, whites and silvers in your landscape designs.

You may wish to skip directly to the Flower Photo page if you are already familiar with color theory.

Color, along with form, line, texture and scale, is one of the basic elements of landscape design, while proportion, transition and unity are some of the principles that rely on those elements. Your choice of colors to be used in the yard should not be considered in isolation. Rather, always keep in mind how color interplays with the other basic elements, with the principles of landscape design, and with the overall objectives of your plan. In Landscape Design for Beginners I discuss the elements and principles of landscape design at greater length, while I illustrate them using pictures through the resources I link to in Landscape Design Photos. A good book on the subject that I have reviewed is the "Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations."

Examples of the Application of Color Theory

The spectrum of colors is often divided into 4 categories:

  • Primary: reds, yellows and blues.
  • Secondary: greens, violets (purples) and oranges.
  • Tertiary: Blends of the primary and secondary categories.
  • Neutral: White, grays and silvers. Gray is an unusual color for blooms or berries, but an example is to be found on bayberry shrubs.

The secondary colors can be thought of as an even blending of two primary colors.

Thus red and yellow produce orange, yellow and blue produce green, and red and blue yield purple.

The blends known as "tertiary colors" add a further element of complexity to the color wheel. I have numbered them on the illustration provided. The numbered colors are as follows: 1.yellow-green, 2.blue-green, 3.blue-violet, 4.red-violet, 5.red-orange and 6.orange-yellow.

Using color theory as your guide, you can match the colors you use in your landscaping so that they "go together." The tertiary colors can serve as transitional colors to this end. For instance, let's say you want a color scheme using reds and violets. If you can find a plant that has a red-violet color, it will help bridge the gulf between your red plants and your violet (purple) plants. The addition of the third plant in such a case makes the difference between a slightly jarring effect (i.e., with just reds and violets) versus a smoother, more harmonious ensemble.

Color can also alter mood and perception, allowing you to:

  • Create a relaxing corner in your yard where you can meditate.
  • Make small spaces seem larger.
  • Attract attention to a particular area.
  • Tie different areas of the yard together.

For explanations as to how you can accomplish all this by applying color theory, please continue onto Page 2....

As stated on Page 1, proper use of color can influence mood and perception. For instance, red, yellow and orange are considered "warm colors" and may excite the viewer. Blue, purple and green are considered "cool colors" and are more likely to relax you. Thus for a meditation garden, blue and/or purple flowers would be a logical choice.

If your backyard comprises just a small area, you can alter the viewer's perception by using a combination of warm and cool colors.

Place flowers with warm colors in the foreground. Behind them, install flowers with cool colors, starting with darker shades (e.g., purple), followed by shades that are successively lighter. This will create an illusion of depth. You can also create this illusion by placing larger plant material in the foreground, then tapering off the size of your plants as you work your way in deeper (the perception that the latter are receding into the distance will be magnified).

Here's another trick: with warm colors like red, you may perceive large spaces to be more intimate. The warm colors appear to come forward in the landscape, and seem closer than they are in reality -- thereby scaling down the whole landscape in the process.

The warm colors are born attention-grabbers, since they bring a mood that does not relax, but rather rouses the viewer. If you wish to draw visitors into a space, create a focal point there using red and/or yellow and/or orange.

Another application of color theory can be seen in the use of color to create either unity or contrast. Landscapers may stay within the warm-colors group or the cool-colors group in order to provide unity, be it within one planting bed or throughout the yard. In the latter case, different parts of the yard are thereby tied together to form a harmonious unit.

Alternatively, landscapers may deliberately juxtapose warm colors and cool colors within a planting bed to produce a contrast. An example of a maximum in contrast is yellow and purple. The other pairs that are directly across from each other on the color wheel also afford maximal contrast. Perhaps you've heard such pairs referred to as "complementary colors," which is jargon from color theory. You may well wonder, "If they're complementary, how can they contrast with each other?" But don't be fooled by the terminology: for the purposes of landscape design, what you need to know is that using these pairs provides striking contrast.

Neutrals allow for transition between stronger hues. Neutrals can also be used to soften the effect of loud color schemes or stand on their own in a monochromatic scheme (e.g., all-white gardens).

On Page 3 we move from color theory to some common-sense considerations, followed by links to flower photos, grouped by color....

Now that we've finished considering some of the ways that the use of color schemes can improve your landscape design on Page 2, let's have a look at some flower photos, grouped by color. But before viewing these images, a common-sense consideration must be mentioned: Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate with our grand plans for color schemes. That is, not all plants will automatically bloom during the same season, and foliage color also changes from season to season in some cases.

Thus, don't expect black-eyed susans to participate in springtime yellow color schemes, because these perennials are summer bloomers. Daffodils would be a better choice for spring. Always inquire about blooming times in your region before buying the plants you'll need to establish color schemes.

Matters stand even worse for flower gardeners intent on having particular color schemes for fall. After all, most plants are naturally geared to bloom in spring or summer. Fall is better known for its outstanding foliage color and berry color. Even chrysanthemums, the most popular autumn flower, have to be coaxed into attaining the form with which we associate them, thanks to the work of nurseries. Nurseries subject mums to a pinching regimen all summer, producing bushy specimens for fall sales. Left to their own devices, mums generally fail to achieve such showy displays.

But with a little extra planning and work on your part, you can include flowers in your fall color schemes.

Thus to achieve red color schemes using red salvia and Virginia creeper, the latter's foliage will start cooperating nicely by September (in the North). But you'll have to hold off on planting your salvia transplants till August, else they'd bloom too early for you. Deadheading may prolong the blooming period for some plants, but the summer's heat often takes its toll on the plants' foliage, rendering it rather unattractive.

A better approach is to buy younger plants that nurseries put on sale later in the summer, as I describe in my article about planting for fall color.

Flower Photos

My intention below has been to select images that span the spectrum in terms of plant type. I also considered diversity in terms of texture, the part of the plant providing the color, and the season when the plant is at the apex of its color display.

I furnish examples of annual plants and perennial plants, bushes and trees, and even vines. Not only blooms but also colorful foliage and berries are represented. For some plants, the bloom or foliage texture will be coarse; for others, it will be fine. Spring, summer and fall all have their representatives. Finally, for you wildflower-landscaping enthusiasts, I've also included some flower photos of wildflowers, while lovers of container-gardening will enjoy the flower photos of container-grown plants.

Use these flower photos to plan your landscape design according to color schemes. Color schemes have the greatest impact when you plant large masses of color, rather than single plants.

Flower Photos: Primary Colors

Red Flower Photos

Yellow Flower Photos

Blue Flower Photos

Flower Photos: Secondary Colors

Orange Flower Photos

Purple Flower Photos

Flower Photos: Neutral Colors

White Flower Photos

"Black" Flower Photos and Dark Foliage Photos

Pictures of Silver Foliage

Other Flower Photos

Pink Flower Photos (Pink is a tint of red.)

Lavender Flower Photos (Lavender is a tint of violet.)