Garden designers need to consider plant shape, leaf texture, the flow of the beds and so much more. But for many gardeners, a great landscape comes down to one thing above all: colour.
That’s particularly true in this country, where we spend so much of our time starved for bright colours. “Our landscape is snowy white for months on end, so when spring comes we are all craving colours,” says Karen Tolton, a certified Master Gardener and the owner of Water’s Edge Landscaping.
She says there are two main schools of thought when it comes to designing a colourful garden. “One approach involves understanding the colour wheel, thinking about complementary colours and adjacent colours, and distinguishing between hot tones and cool ones,” she says. “The other approach is a lot more playful: it just says that all colour is good colour, and the more of it you can have, the better!”
Serious garden designers may look down their noses at the box-of-crayons approach, but Karen says there are merits to both. “It really boils down to your personal style and what makes you happy,” she says. “We’ve installed and maintained formal landscapes with a well-defined colour scheme, as well as informal properties that have an English Cottage Garden feel with splashes of colour everywhere. It’s all good.”
Even if your personal style tends toward the informal, Karen says paying a bit of attention to colour theory can help give your garden maximum impact.
There are certain colour combinations that we instinctively find appealing. A bright red flower, for example, looks its best when set against dark green foliage rather than against a red wall. That’s because red and green are opposite each other on the colour wheel – they are complementary colours.
The same is true of other complementary colours. Yellow and purple, for example, or orange and blue.
“When you see an orange flower, there’s a part of your brain that just starts scanning the environment for something blue,” Karen says. “And when you spot it, it’s comforting. It just feels right.”
Whether your landscape design is formal or informal, it makes sense to take colour complements into account. “If you have a swath of bright yellow yarrow in your garden, it will just look better if you plant something purple like veronica nearby.”
Of course, you also need to consider when the flowers come into bloom, Karen adds: yellow mums and purple tulips would probably be a great combination, but they bloom four months apart. “The garden never stands still,” Karen says. “You need to be always thinking about what is going to bloom next, and what is nearly done blooming.”
Annuals can be a great tool in the quest for continuous colour, particularly in containers. “It’s not unusual for our crews to remove spent annuals in mid-summer, and plant late-season bloomers in their place,” Karen says. “That way there’s colour all season long.”
Warmer or cooler?It’s also important to think about colour warmth when designing a garden. Reds, yellows and oranges are “hot” colours. A garden filled with them will have a great deal of energy and excitement, and can actually make you feel physically warmer while you’re in it.
Cool colours like blue and purple, on the other hand, tend to be soothing and calming. A garden filled with cool colours will feel restful, a great spot to unwind after a busy day.
“Hot colours also tend to feel physically closer than cool colours,” Karen notes. If you have a yellow flower and a purple flower planted side by side, the purple flower will appear to be further away.
Designers sometimes use this fact to create an illusion of depth in a smaller space, or to reduce the visual distance in a larger space. “If you have a garden bed that you mainly see from a distance, bright, hot colours will stand out much more than cool violets or blues.”
Consider the background
It’s also worth remembering that plants aren’t the only thing that bring colour to your garden. Buildings, hedges and trees are all part of the visual landscape, and a good gardener will take those into account.
If your cottage is white, for example, then a bed of deep green hostas or ferns or a deep purple clematis can look amazing. Put those same plants in front of a black house, though, and they will lose much of their punch.
The lake is another obvious influence on the garden, but it can be tricky. “The lake changes colour so dramatically that you really can’t count on it,” says Karen. “It can be green, blue, grey or even black depending on the weather. You just have to take the lake as it comes!”
Ultimately, Karen says, there is no wrong way to use colour in the cottage garden. “Our season here is short. Just fill it with colour and enjoy it!”
TEXT A. WAGNER-CHAZALON | PHOTOS ANDREW FEARMAN