Understanding Color Theory and How-To Design a Garden with it!

Bee Better Naturally with Helen Yoest


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Color is what excites people most in a garden design—color in the flowers, the accents, and even in the furniture during the cold of winter. When visiting a garden with colors that blend, note what makes them work together. A refresher in color theory will make this easier to do.

Color Theory


Understanding color theory can help you make good decisions about your garden design. Use the color wheel for guidance will help you recognize why something looks great or just doesn’t work.

  • Primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. They share nothing in common. They are the colors from which all other colors are derived.
  • Mixing two primary colors creates the secondary colors of green, purple, and orange.
  • Combining a primary and a secondary color creates tertiary colors, such as yellow-green or orange-red.
  • Analogous colors are those colors sitting next to each other on the color wheel. These colors blend easily with each other. For example, yellow with yellow-green and green is an analogous color combination.
  • Contrasting colors (often called complementary colors) lie directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Examples include blue and orange, yellow and purple, and red and green. These color pairings intensify each other and make a bold statement when combined, offering a striking contrast.
  • A harmonious color scheme utilizes contrasting colors with an added color that is analogous to one of the contrasting colors—for example using purple and yellow with yellow’s neighbor, yellowish-green. Monochromatic colors, those of a single tone, have their place and can be the most calming of all garden styles.
  • Monochromatic colors are those of a single tone, such as varying shades of blue. These are often calming color schemes.

Warm Colors

The warm colors, also known as hot colors, are energetic and vivid. Hot colors include red, orange, yellow and the tertiary colors in between. These colors pair well with blue.

Warm colors reflect more light than they absorb, so they look bigger and closer than they actually are. Warm colors are considered active, attracting the eye. Visible from afar, warm colors dominate the scene and bring excitement and energy to the garden. Warm colors draw the eye to a focal point, such as a mailbox bed or an otherwise special area in the garden where a little punch is welcomed.

Cool Colors

The cool colors include blue, purple, green, and the tertiary colors in between. They are considered passive and give an impression of calm. White and pale yellows both pair well with cool colors.

Because cool colors absorb more light than they reflect, they are less noticeable from afar and tend to look smaller or disappear completely with distance. They can also look washed out in the sun, as is the case with pastels. Cool colors will work best when used up close.


White is the absence of color; a color that works particularly well in areas of your garden that are mostly enjoyed when the sun goes down. Colorful flower gardens fade at night, but white pops.

One popular sort of monochromatic garden is the “white garden.” The classic White Garden of Sissinghurst Garden in England provides a beautiful example of this type of garden.


Color can also be used in the garden to change perspective. Carefully using color in a certain way can make a small garden actually look larger.

The human eye works in a way that creates an aerial perspective—saturated, intense colors, such as a dark blue, will appear to be nearer to you. You can see an example of this when you look at a mountain range. The mountains nearest you look darker blue, while the mountains farther back become a lighter and paler blue until they almost disappear, giving an illusion of depth. In your garden, using more saturated colors in one area will make those plants appear closer. Then, by selecting colors that go from intense purplish-blue to medium blue to a pale blue, you can use perspective to make the paler flowers look much farther away than they actually are. So if you have a small garden space in your backyard that you wish to appear larger than it really is, this trick will help you accomplish that.

Year-Round Color

Adding color in the spring and summer is easy to do when there are so many flowers in bloom. In the fall and winter, too, color abounds in woody plants, bark, seeds, and berries. Holly, both evergreen and deciduous, adds color in my winter garden, as do early blooming daffodils, tulips, and yellow- and red-stem dogwood. Making a point to find plants that have 3 or more seasons of interest will engage you longer in the garden.

When colors are repeated in a garden design, they help move your eye along the border. Don’t limit your color palette to just flowers. Foliage, gazing globes, or other accents can play a lively role in a garden’s color scheme.


Color is not only about personal preference—local conditions can make a big difference in the color choices that will make your garden powerful.

When I lived in London, the light was considerably different than what I was used to on the east coast of the U.S. In England hot colors looked dull and mute. Pastels dominated many of the landscapes because they worked well with the natural lighting by brightening up the dull grey light.

France was where I had to go for a hot color fix. The light was phenomenal in Paris. It’s the most flattering light—to plants and people—I’ve ever experienced. The yellows were more vibrant, the reds regaling. Back home, particularly where I live in Raleigh, pastels are washed away in the bright sunlight beaming down on my flowers. But hot colors can hold their own in that more intense light. It’s not always a matter of what colors complement—also consider how the light will read your color in your particular area.

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Pollinator-friendly, sustainable, good design

Raleigh, NC

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