How to use colour in a garden ?

Colour is probably the most difficult aspect to consider when designing an outdoor space, whilst also taking into account surfaces, furniture, decoration and of course, plants. Colours create atmosphere, influence our mood and play with available light. Clearly, appreciation of colour is subjective and depends on personal taste, and also our cultural heritage. Using colour from plants is particularly difficult to manage, as foliage and flower colour change through their lifetime and with the seasons.

Rosa banksiae 'Lutea', Ceanothus 'Puget Blue'. ©NR Landscaping

The colour circle

A good way to start is by using the colour circle. There are many different representations of this. The circle can be divided into two equal parts, with hot colours on one side (pink, red, orange, yellow, acid green) and cold colours on the other (blue-green, blue, purple). Colours can also be sub-divided into bright, vivid, dynamic and deep tones, or pastel and soft shades.

Colour effects

Hot colours are the ones we see first, particularly when they are far away. They have a dynamic effect.

Kniphofia ‘Prince Igor’, Cynara cardunculus and Helenium ‘Sahins Early Flowerer’ | dry, alkaline well-drained soil, and full sun, min. -7°C. ©GAP Photos, Richard Bloom

Cold colours have a soothing effect, they invite calm and contemplation.

Phlox paniculata 'Blue Evening’, Clematis ‘Rhapsody’ F. Watkinson | cool, alkaline soil, partial shade, min. -12°C. source:

Like shade, black adds depth when used as a background, and sets off the colours in the foreground.

©La Redoute intérieur

Grey sets off blues and greens.

Iris germanica, Tanacetum densum ssp. amani, Artemisia sp., Veronica umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’, Lavandula angustifolia | dry, well-drained, alkaline soil, full sun, min. -15°C. source:

Artemisia ‘Sea Foam’, Opuntia sp., Agave parryi, Yucca rostrata, Grevillea rosmarinifolia, Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila | dry, acidic, well-drained soil, full sun, min. -5°C. source:

White illuminates and enlarges spaces and adds brightness to the surrounding colours.

Eryngium giganteum 'Silver Ghost’, Echinacea purpurea ‘Rubinglow’ | dry, alkaline soil, full sun, min -15°C. source:, RHS Garden Wisley, Piet Oudolf

Fothergilla gardenii, Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum 'Fire Dance', Tulipe Triomphe 'Helmar' | cool and acidic soil, partial shade or sun, min -7°C. ©NR Landscaping

Black, grey and white evoke elegance and modernity. They bring out surrounding colours and play with their tones. But using just these colours on a large scale can create an impersonal or cool effect.


©NR Landscaping

©Claire Mee, Clapham Garden

Brown, beige and green evoke nature, earth and hardiness.

Echinacea pallida, Stipa tenuissima | dry, alkaline, well-drained soil, full sun, min. -15°C. source:

©Louise Harrison-Holland, RHS Tatton Flower Show 2008

Stipa tenuissima, Puya chilensis, Protea sp. | well-drained acid soil, full sun, min. -5°C. source:, The Sculpture Gardens

Combining colours

The colour circle is a useful guide to creating harmonious colour combinations :

  • opposites : colours at opposite sides of the circle are complementary

  • triad : 3 colours equidistant from each other

  • shades: 3 to 4 colours close to each other on the circle

Opposite colours

These combinations create brightness, contrast and dynamism. Do not use overuse as they can be dazzling.

Salvia x sylvestris, Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae | dry, well-drained soil, full sun or partial shade, min. -15°C. ©Genevieve Schmidt, North Coast Gardening

Heuchera 'Peach Crisp', Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold', Abelia x Grandiflora | cool and rich soil, partial shade, min -12°C ©NR Landscaping

Rudbeckia sp., Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ | dry, well-drained soil, full sun, min. -12°C. source:

Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’, Rubus cockburnianus ‘Goldenvale’ | fresh soil, draining, partial shade, min. -7°C. source:

Monochrome colours

These gentle colour combinations elicit harmony and tranquility.

Rosa Burgundy Ice 'Prose', Stipa tenuissima, Verbena bonariensis, Acanthus spinosus, Scabiosa sp., Heuchera sp., Coprosma 'Scarlet O'Hara' | dry, alkaline well-drained soil, full sun or partial shade, min. -7°C. source:

Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’, Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’, Melianthus comosus | cool and draining soil, full sun or partial shade, min. -7°C. source:

Echinops bannaticus, Allium lusitanicum, Echinacea purpurea | dry, well-drained soil, full sun, min. -12°C. source:, Piet Oudolf

Triad colours

Plant combinations of this type provide a feeling of balance and energy. However, if used for hard landscaping (paths, furniture) the effect can be very artificial.

Lavandula angustifolia, Lilium sp. (Asiatic hybrid / asiaticum), Euphorbia characias, Helianthemum sp. : dry, alkaline well-drained soil, full sun, min. -12°C | Phormium sp. in pot : cool, acidic soil, min. -5°C. ©Genevieve Schmidt, North Coast Gardening

NB: If you want to include a plant with different cultivation needs in an arrangement, you can put it into a pot where it can be treated appropriately (soil, watering, over-wintering etc). You can either bury the pot in the ground or use an attractive planter to protect the plant in its pot during the winter (see the phormium in the picture).

Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’, Heuchera sp., Ajuga reptans ‘Atropurpurea’, Muscari armeniacum | cool, well-drained soil, partial shade, min -15°C. source:

NB: The plant associations we have presented as examples are for illustrative purposes only. Each growing environment has unique characteristics, so results will vary according to local weather conditions, soils and care regimes.

#colour #garden #design #outdoor

This site was designed with the
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now