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Colour theory in garden design

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Michelle Chapman Michelle Chapman | 07:15 UK time, Sunday, 20 March 2011

Until recently I've not really thought too deeply about colour in my garden. I've trusted to my instincts and gone for pleasing combinations of plants, which look good together and provide a long or multiple season of interest.

Keith Wiley's Wildside

Keith Wiley's garden at Wildside on a dull, drizzly day in July 2010

However, lately I've been making some uncharacteristic choices. Last summer, having planted up my seasonal pots, I realised everything was white: from the large bowls of busy lizzies, through to a wonderfully scented Nemesia 'Wisley Vanilla' by my back door. In the autumn a deep wine-red cyclamen stole my heart. Then in January the Barbie pink hyacinths I'd received for Christmas were perfectly acceptable. In fact they were positively needed.

So what was happening? Was this a sea change in my tastes, or a deeper, more instinctive reason at work? Or should I just put it down to my mood?

Having spoken to many people since then, I've found the yellow of March is just right for now. Not only because it lifts us away from the gloomy days of winter, but also the angle of the sun is perfectly poised to make our daffodils glow.

I've been introduced to the colour wheel and how designers use it to create harmony or add a different perspective to a space. They use reds and oranges to bring things in closer or blues and purples to add distance. Nature uses these tricks too. Who can forget a bluebell wood in spring when it seems to go on forever?

Others dismiss the colour wheel, saying 'there are no colour clashes in nature'. They're right: I've often despaired about my garden when looking at the perfection of Wiltshire's chalk downland. Keith Wiley's explosion of colour at Wildside is a revelation, as is seeing a Pictorial Meadow for the first time. However, I've realised there are other factors to consider. There's lots of space to allow the eye to roam, plus many green and white plants to provide a background for the more colourful ones.

Elsewhere, research shows people have a preference for colour. Red makes the heart beat faster, but too much can lead to madness. The eye is drawn to the colour yellow, yet when a garden designer asks clients about colour preferences, this plus orange are usually bottom of the list.

Where does all this leave my original observations? I now believe my need for white was a consequence of our harsh winter and long, cold spring last year. I remember seeing the daffodils of March, the tulips of April, and the alliums of May/June all in one glorious burst of colour. By the time I came to choose my summer plants, I think my eyes and brain had overdosed a little (this is a known phenomenon) and needed the calming influence of white to help them chill out.

By the time autumn came, I'd calmed down and then needed the stimulation of the red cyclamen. As for the pink hyacinths, I've just seen that here in southern England our winter months have been even more dull and miserable than usual. So I really was in need of a dose of their Pink Sunshine after all.

Have you any thoughts about the way you use colour in your garden, or noticed a different reaction to usual? Do share them in the comments below.

Michelle Chapman is a writer and keen gardener and allotmenteer from Wiltshire. Regular readers of her popular blog Veg Plotting, know her as VP


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting to see that other Gardeners too get into a 'colour habit'. Initially, the herbacious borders were just pastel colours; blue/purple, pink and white. Lovely, but it needed a 'lift', so I introduced crimson/dark pinks which has worked. Admittedly, it took some courage!

  • Comment number 2.

    I had a similar white period in a shady corner-there were evergreens and it felt gloomy so I planted snowdrops, double white hellebores and white tulips for the spring-it all looks good but I forgot about some drumhead primulas that were there and I now have a patch of purple too!

  • Comment number 3.

    Oxonian Gardener - bravo. One snippet which didn't make the cut for this post was Jekka McVicar introduced the colour red in her exhibits on the advice of Christopher Lloyd to give just the kind of 'lift' you've seen works so well.

    Trevoria - I'm with you on evergreens looking so gloomy and I like the sound of what you've done. I planted some purple crocus last autumn in my shady garden. Some of them have turned out to be white so I've had a kind of reverse result to you!


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