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Master Gardener Journal  


B E T T E R   L A N D S C A P E   D E S I G N



A Color Palette for Your Landscape

by Sandy Turico,
Master Gardener

Color is such an integral part of our lives, yet we so often take it for granted. Take a few minutes to study your landscape. Now picture it in black and white. A garden devoid of color would not appeal to most of us. Our homes, gardens, and even our clothing reflect our personalities. We define ourselves through the colors we choose to surround ourselves with.

Faced with a tantalizing display of plants at your local nursery, how do you decide the best use of color in your landscape? Although it is ultimately a matter of personal taste, there are some basic principles to bear in mind. A color wheel, which you may be familiar with, can help you visualize color combinations. It can be a valuable tool in designing your landscape.

Red, blue, and yellow are primary colors. They are equidistant on the color wheel. These are pure hues that cannot be made by mixing colors. The secondary colors are purple, green and orange. Each of these is created by combining two primary colors. How do we apply this information to landscape design? There are certain qualities particular to each color.

Red, orange and yellow are warm colors. They visually move the eye forward. Theses hues are exciting, happy, and energetic. Use them to brighten or highlight an area, or to draw attention away from an eyesore. But remember, too much can be overpowering.

Red is eye-popping, exhilarating, and inviting-perfect to utilize as a focal point. It speaks of passion and dominance. Research has shown that the color red stimulates conversation and the appetite, so use it near your outdoor dining areas.

Orange is a vivid color, also said to stimulate the appetite. Though not quite as bold as red, it is an exuberant addition to the landscape palette.

Yellow is lively, the essence of joy and cheerfulness. It can visually expand an area, providing the illusion of spaciousness. This is the color of sunshine, likely to bring a smile to the faces of garden visitors.

Blue, green, and purple are known as cool colors. They promote feelings of peacefulness and calm. These subdued hues tend to recede into the background, and are not easily seen after dusk or in the shady parts of your garden.

Blue says 'tranquility.' This serene color reminds us of sky and sea, and blends well with other colors. Use it en masse to make it more visible.

Green is the backbone of the landscape. Its refreshing and varied shades serve to unify the garden palette. It is so prevalent we may have a tendency to forget how significant its role is.

Purple, regal and mystical, sometimes shows itself in foliage as well as flowers. Purple can be dramatic, or a subtle addition to the garden, depending upon the colors you decide to use with it.

Another set of hues on the color wheel combine a primary and its nearest secondary color neighbor. Red-orange, yellow-green and blue-purple are examples of 'tertiary' colors.

Variations of these colors can be light or dark, bright or muted. Add white to any color on the wheel, and you get a tint or a pastel. Pink and lavender are common pastels found in the garden.

Pink evokes feelings of romance and sentimentality.

Lavender is an enchanting, calming pastel. Like the scent of lavender, this color tends to be a stress reliever.

White and gray are neutral colors. Neutrals provide transition, blend hues in the landscape, and enhance individual colors.

White may fade under our harsh desert sun, but it comes alive in the shade and at night with a special radiance. Crisp and pure, you can count on it to glow as darker colors fade after sunset. Incorporate white into areas that will be noticeable in the evening, such as patios or entryways.

Gray or silver foliage is especially effective as a backdrop for brighter colors. It is a delightful color in our desert climate.

Green is not traditionally considered a neutral color, but in a garden situation it creates stability by helping our eyes to transition effortlessly from one area of the garden to another.

A monochromatic color scheme utilizes only one hue and its variations, creating an elegant effect. Include variations of the color you choose, so your design does not look monotonous. Visualize a garden of yellows; perhaps pale lemon yellow, a dazzling sunshine yellow, and deeper gold tone. Add some white accents to make the color sparkle!

A color scheme involving two hues is the complimentary color scheme. Colors opposite each other on the color wheel are used. Blue and orange, red and green, or yellow and purple are possibilities. These combinations are striking because one color intensifies the other, a sure attention-grabber.

Another option to consider is the triadic color scheme, where three colors equidistant on the color wheel are brought into play. Imagine your garden dressed in the primary colors-red, blue and yellow. A grouping of tertiary hues such as blue-purple, yellow-green and red-orange would be a delightful combination.

An analogous color scheme is achieved by making use of hues that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. In this scenario, two or more colors located next to each other on the color wheel are chosen. This grouping will achieve a subtler outcome, soothing and restful, since the eye is less apt to bounce between colors. Orange, yellow-orange and yellow hues, for example, merge into a dazzling but calming display.

Here are some other points to consider:
Color evokes different emotions -follow your instincts when choosing a color scheme. If you don't quite know where to start, take a close look at the inside and outside of your home. Your landscape colors should blend with the exterior of your house. Moreover, you've probably already made use of your favorite colors inside your home. You can even check out your wardrobe for ideas!

The principles of color can also apply to the hardscape or the non-living elements in the garden.

Simplicity is best. Stick to one, two, or three hues in your design. Add in too many colors, and you may end up with a chaotic look. Interspersing a few colors in an area evokes an informal, carefree mood. Using restraint in your color scheme will result in a more formal, elegant feel. If you need help visualizing color combinations, invest in a color wheel. You can find one in an art book, an art supply store or on the Internet.

Incorporate both advancing and receding hues in your landscape to add depth to your design.

Check out the 'Landscape Design' chapter of the Master Gardener manual, as well as the Maricopa County Home Horticulture Publications available from the Cooperative Extension Office. Other resources include horticultural and landscape books written for our region. These sources can provide valuable information about low-water-use plants. You can research foliage and blossom color, light and water requirements, as well as plant size and hardiness information for plants that are indigenous or adapted to our climate.

How will your landscape look during the different seasons? An easy way to envision seasonal changes is to create a plot plan. Lay out your landscape plan on graph paper. Make four copies of the plan to represent the four seasons. Next, color in the plantings on each graph to signify the colors you can expect to see in that particular season. Look for variety, simplicity, and a balance of color in your design, and adjust it until you have the look you desire.

Remember, keep it simple and let your instincts guide you. Above all, have fun with color! By combining your knowledge of color with your own special style, you can turn your landscape into a work of art!



Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated April 29, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to Maricopa-hort@ag.arizona.edu 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
Voice: (602) 470-8086 ext. 301, Fax (602) 470-8092