Taking a disciplined approach lets you harmonize your plant palette without stifling diversity
Two colors are all you need. This dynamic landscape uses mainly blue and white.
Photo/Illustration: 
Ann Stratton

The color wheel can only take a garden so far. When it comes to pairing hues, it is certainly a helpful tool. But too often, using colors, not picking them out, stumps gardeners the most.

As a designer, I don’t believe in rules or obsess over color theories. In my experience, almost any color combination can work. I do, however, design within a few basic parameters. These self-imposed restrictions strive for the same goal: to establish a sense of order. That is the secret to successfully working with color. It’s what often separates amazing gardens from those that seem off or cluttered.

So how do you establish order? It’s actually easier than it might sound. All you need to do is keep proportions balanced, stick to a color scheme, and avoid making any sudden changes. By applying color within this framework, you can create a gorgeous space, without having to stress over long lists of designer dos and don’ts.

A simple ratio lets each color look its best

Keep the colors simple, but choose a highlight. Hints of yellow brighten quiet pastels. Without the yellow, the pinks, blues, and whites in this garden would appear muted and dull.
Photo/Illustration: 
Ann Stratton
In my garden, I have developed a series of rooms, each with its own color scheme. While the style of the plantings and my approach to color are relatively consistent, the changing palettes make the rooms feel quite different.

To avoid a busy look and to keep the eye moving, plant large groups of each color and repeat them throughout your beds. You might add a mass of pink, for instance, followed by a large grouping of white, trailed by a mass of blue, then touches of yellow as highlights. Once established, repeat this pattern—or a subtle variation of it—throughout the garden. If the beds have a great deal of depth, stagger the pattern from the front to the back.

 

Using restraint prevents a cluttered look

Holding back pays off. The author created a new area where these lilies would fit in with the existing palette (photo taken at 5).
Photo/Illustration: 
Ann Stratton

Sticking to a color scheme often means bypassing beloved plants for the sake of good design. If your goal is to create a pastel garden, don’t introduce reds or oranges in a moment of weakness. No matter how much you’re drawn to that pot of scarlet poppies or bright yellow zinnias, don’t give in to these whims. The rewards of restraint far outweigh the sacrifices.

We all know that an abundance of flowers does not guarantee a beautiful garden. Too much variety tends to overwhelm viewers. Limiting your color palette makes it easier to strike a pleasing balance. And for the novice who finds the infinite varieties of plants daunting or the enthusiast who shops compulsively, fewer options at the nursery might actually feel like a blessing.

Let the color palette set the mood

Craving peace and quiet? Go blue and white.
Photo/Illustration: 
Ann Stratton
Seeking a warm welcome? Plant pastels.
Photo/Illustration: 
Ann Stratton
Yearning to entertain? Pick hot colors.
Photo/Illustration: 
Ann Stratton
Nothing has more immediate impact on a garden’s vibe than color. Decide how you want a space
to make you feel, then choose the palette accordingly.
Neutral areas add diversity. The tan gravel is the perfect bridge between two color schemes—hot colors and pastels—that wouldn’t work if they were adjacent to one another (photo taken at 1).
Photo/Illustration: 
Andrew Grossman
There are times, of course, when self-control is unrealistic. A few years back, I became enamored of pink water lilies. At the time, my only water feature was in the blue-and-white garden, and adding the color pink was out of the question. So I rethought my space and built another pond on the other side of the house facing my front garden. Filled with pink, white, and yellow water lilies, this pond blends with my pastel entry garden because they share the same color scheme. This approach works just as well on a smaller scale, when simply cutting one or two new beds will do the trick.
 

Smooth transitions keep colors from clashing

Green is soothing. This lush patchwork of thyme offers refuge from the hot-colored summer blooms and provides a transition to the calmer blue-and-white garden (photo taken at 3).
Photo/Illustration: 
Ann Stratton

If your garden has more than one color scheme, don’t just butt them together; add transitional spaces between them. These neutral areas soften the contrast between different sections of a landscape and give the viewer’s eye a chance to rest. There are essentially two approaches to designing a transitional space. You can either rely on a neutral color palette of greens, tans, and grays or incorporate colors and plants from the two areas you’re linking together. I’ve done both.

The tan gravel patio that stretches along my side yard creates some necessary breathing room between the pastel front garden and the hot-color back garden. The pale yellows, silvers, and hot pinks planted around the patio intentionally flatter both gardens equally. Meanwhile, the checkerboard patio that connects the hot-color garden to the blue-and-white garden serves the same purpose as the gravel patio. Its geometric patches of golden thyme offer a neutral color palette that gently leads the viewer from one area to another. These visually quiet spaces are as important as the more colorful ones. Use them to pace the viewer’s experience and enhance the beauty of your garden.

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