University of Illinois Extension
Color - Garden Style and Display - Stepping Stones to Perennial Garden Design - University of Illinois Extension


Gardening gives me fun and health and knowledge. It gives me laughter and color. It gives me pictures of almost incredible beauty.
-- John F. Kenyon from My Gardener's Good-night

Perennials are most often chosen for their flower color. The human eye sees color first. Color can convey a mood or evoke feelings. Pastels conjure up images of newborn babies and spring. Gold, russet and orange speak to us of autumn. Color is emotional, purple has long been associated with mourning, while red means STOP, and yellow is slow down, look, take your time. Color is used daily in advertising to influence our purchasing decisions. There is a reason that most fast-food establishments are red, orange and yellow. The colors tell us slow down, stop in. Color if used correctly can create spatial illusion. Certain colors recede making a small space appear larger while other colors advance toward you making a large space appear smaller. Thus, an understanding of color in the garden and its implications is important.

The Color Wheel

What is color? A very simplified definition is that it is one of the visual sensations caused by light. We see a red rose because its surface absorbs all the rays in light except red, which is then reflected. Our eye experiences the sensation of red.

We all have a subconscious sense of color. Our reaction to it and appreciation of it requires little effort of intellect or imagination. However, we all differ in our color preferences. We choose car colors, interior design colors and clothing colors based on personal likes and dislikes.

The color wheel will help guide you in your color decisions. Remember, there are no correct answers, only many possibilities. Besides personal likes and dislikes, you need to think about garden distance and time of day you will most often view the garden.

The basic color wheel has three main colors on it. Red, yellow and blue are primary colors - they stand alone with none of them influencing the other. They are the primary pigments that when mixed create all the other colors we see. The other three colors on the wheel -- violet, orange and green -- are secondary. They are the result of mixing two primary colors; i.e., yellow + blue = green. Adjacent colors on the wheel are termed harmonies or complements, since they share common pigments. Yellow-orange is a complementing color to yellow-green.

Contrasting colors are located directly opposite one another and don't share common pigments. Blue is the contrasting color to orange. A hue, tint or shade is changing the color value by adding white or black. Research has shown that people respond most positively to closely harmonious colors or to strong contrasting colors.

Color is also classified by temperature. Warm and cool are the most common ways of dividing color. Blue colors such as purple and violet are cool colors. Yellow and red are warm colors. True green in the garden is more neutral, very much like white, although when influenced by blue it is cooler and with yellow it is classified warmer.

Warm colors advance toward the eye. They can pull in the borders of a large yard, creating a more intimate space. Warm colors create vivid displays which can be seen from a distance. If your garden site is in the far corner of the yard, consider warm colors to pull it closer and increase its visibility. Consider the time of day you are viewing the garden. In low light levels during early morning or dusk, warm colors are vibrant. If you work full time and can only enjoy your garden in early morning or evening, warm colors are recommended.

Cool colors recede and disappear when viewed from a distance. They can add the impression of depth and increase the feeling of space in a small area. Blue flowers are popular, but realize they are easily lost by the eye so plant accordingly. Cool colors contrast well. You will need to place blue tones against a light, contrasting background. Cool colors are lost in low light or when viewed from a distance.

Expect to plant up to four times as many cool colored plants as warm colored plants if viewing the garden from across the yard. An example would be comparing Black-eyed Susan (Rubdeckia sp.) with blue-violet Siberian Iris (Iris siberica). One Black Eyed Susan visually equals 4 to 5 blue-violet iris if viewed from a distance or in low light. Consider this when planning for a morning or evening garden. Cool colors work very well in small, courtyard type gardens. Here you have a defined, close quarters space. Cool colors can make it appear larger and since viewing is close-up, they aren't lost in the distance.