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Color Theory and How It Applies to Gardens and Landscaping

Lisa is a writer and gardener with extensive knowledge of plants and plant care. Her articles focus on easy-care tips for home gardeners.

There are three basic principles when talking about color and color theory: the color wheel, color harmony, and context or application of its use.

There are three basic principles when talking about color and color theory: the color wheel, color harmony, and context or application of its use.

Basic Color Principles

There are three basic principles when talking about color and color theory: the color wheel, color harmony, and context or application of its use.

The Color Wheel

The color wheel is based on the primary colors (blue, red and yellow).

Primary colors are colors that cannot be mixed or formed from any other colors.

Secondary colors are created by mixing primary colors:

  • Green is created by mixing blue and yellow
  • Orange is created by mixing red and yellow
  • Purple is created by mixing blue and red

Tertiary colors are formed by mixing one primary color with a secondary color:

  • Yellow-orange
  • Red-orange
  • Red-purple
  • Blue-purple
  • Blue-green
  • Yellow-green

What Is Color Harmony?

Color harmony is when the colors are arranged in a pleasing way to the viewer. It creates a sense of equilibrium within the landscape.

  • It creates balance
  • It creates a sense of order
  • It creates a sense of excitement i.e. is not visually boring to the viewer

The main idea is to create a sense of balance. Too much visual stimulation is chaotic and will "turn off" the observer. Not enough stimulation will also turn off the viewer, but not because of it being too busy, but because it is visually boring and bland.

Color Types: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary.

Color Types: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary.

Color Relationships

Complimentary colors are those colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. Complimentary colors work together by bringing out the intensity of each other. Red and green on their own are less vibrant than when they are next to each other. The same happens when blue and orange are placed together, purple and yellow, and so on.

Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel. When used, it creates a gradation of the same color.

Color Theory in Landscape and Garden Design

There are no right or wrong colors to use in your garden design. The first rule of thumb is to start by choosing the color or colors you like and go from there.

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In general, darker colors will recede into the landscape while lighter colors will be more prominent in the landscape.

Warm colors (red, yellow, orange) will catch your attention. They are energizing and exciting.

Cool colors (blue, purple, pink) will recede in the landscape and make your space look larger. This is a great trick for people who have small yards but want to make their space look more spacious. Cool colors are calming and serene.

Monochromatic colors create visual unity. A way to spice up a monochromatic landscape is to use contrasting textures (both leaves and flowers) to add more visual interest.

Tranquil garden from Chicago Flower and Garden Show 2014

Tranquil garden from Chicago Flower and Garden Show 2014

Tranquil and Zen Gardens

Many people use serene colors in their outdoor space to create a relaxing retreat. Using the color wheel and color theory, cool colors create this effect. As seen in this example above, the use of blue hydrangeas, pink roses and rose petals soften the landscape. To further create the Zen experience, a water feature was added and a Buddha statue.

Color Theory Works for Hardscapes too!

Color theory is not just applied to plants and flowers in your landscape. In the example below taken in Puerto Rico, the buildings are bright and colorful as well as the native plants.

Here we see the use of complementary colors of blue and orange working with each other to create a bright and beautiful view. The building colors are rounded out with the addition of the sprawling Bougainvillea cascading over the rooftop garden and the addition of green ferns with red wreaths (decorated for Christmas time) which are also complementary colors.

San Juan, Puerto Rico Residences.

San Juan, Puerto Rico Residences.

Tiger Lilies with Mallow

Tiger Lilies with Mallow

Combining Both Warm and Cool Colors

Both warm and cool colors can be combined in a non-chaotic way in your landscape. The best advice I can give is less is more, meaning only pick a few colors and dot them throughout your landscape for flow and continuity. Combining both warm and cool colors creates a more natural landscape and is useful when planning a wildflower garden. In the example above, the orange tiger lilies are combined with pink mallow in this wildflower planting bed at Brookfield Zoo in Riverside, IL.

Applying Color in Your Garden

There are no hard set rules when it comes to landscaping, but hopefully this introduction to color theory will give you some great ideas for your garden. As always, experiment with what looks best to you using your favorite hues.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Lisa Roppolo


Ann Carr from SW England on May 13, 2019:

Colours are so important for so many settings and situations. I prefer soft colours in the garden, blues, yellows and soft silver leaves, but a splash of colour makes us smile too.

Beautiful illustrations and a good explanation of the colour wheel.


Lisa Roppolo (author) from New Lenox, IL on August 01, 2014:

Thanks for the comment! You can definitely mix in wild flowers into your border. Wild flowers are very low maintenance and once established, drought tolerant as well.

DREAM ON on July 31, 2014:

Your hub made me think of new ways to make flowers pop. I have lots of border plants that are green with purple flowers on the top. I wonder if I could mix wild flower in with them to give them a lot more color. I am not sure if one plant would over power the other. Some border plants are green and white in the leaves which are very pretty and hardy.I have a lot of yellow daisy's that spread. I tried to transplant them they seem to have not liked it very much. I also have planted mint that smell so nice.They spread by themselves. Thank you for your hub. I love flowers and plants they really brighten up a home.

Lisa Roppolo (author) from New Lenox, IL on April 18, 2014:


RTalloni on April 18, 2014:

A neat look at giving consideration to using color in garden landscapes!

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