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For The Love Of Gardening: Color Schemes For Gardeners



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Unlike botanical nomenclature, which employs Latin, the vocabulary of color is plain English. The words are simple and familiar. The trick to using color effectively in the garden is not in learning a new language, but in learning how to look and to be able to tell a warm red from a cool red.

A handful of words describe the quality of colors: warm or hot and cool. The warm colors are reds, oranges, and yellows. The cool colors: greens, blues, and violets.

But you shall know the colors by the company they keep, and a warm red leans toward orange; a cool American beauty rose red inclines toward violet. All colors at their strongest are described as either “pure,” “intense,” or “saturated.”

Less intense versions of each color are called tints, tones, and shades.

Artists achieve these color variations by mixing paints. A tint is a pale color to which white has been added. Nature achieves a similar effect but in her own way. Think of all the pastel blossoms in your own garden. Peonies are a good example. They run the gamut from the palest of pinks to deep reds. Tints are the pale versions of a color.

A tone is a subdued version of a hue or a color to which gray has been added. Nature is endlessly creative and subtle when it comes to low-intensity foliage tones, like the leaves of coral bells ‘Marmalade’ or the rich, deep red foliage of the thread-leaf Japanese maple and the leaves of the purple smoke bush.

A shade is a dark version of the original color or a color to which black has been added.

The breadth and richness of the gardener’s palette is boundless, but there are basically only two ways to use color that result in effective combinations, either contrast or harmony. Contrast is based on difference, such as that Christmas favorite — red and green. Complementary colors are found directly opposite each other on the wheel. Other complementary pairs are yellow and violet; and blue and orange. Paired complements always give you bang for your buck.

The three primary colors have nothing in common and make for a jolting effect in a backyard, but at a local nursery, traffic slows to a crawl passing a red, yellow, and blue border that does just what it should! It demands attention. The primary colors are strong, unadulterated, and highly contrasting.

Red contains no other color than red; yellow is yellow only; and likewise, blue contains only blue. All other colors can be made from these three.

Secondary colors are made from mixing two primaries. Orange is the result of mixing red and yellow; yellow and blue make green; and violet is a mixture od blue and red.

Nature has already mixed an infinite array of harmonious in-between colors that defy description. One bed in my garden is devoted entirely to daylilies in what I think of as fruit-flavored hues like orange, peach, and melon, colors that share a common pigment: yellow.

Setting them off is a background of cooling, calming green, the great peacekeeper in the landscape and in the garden. With enough green leaves, almost any color scheme works. But the more you know about color, the more fun you will have, and that is why I joined forces with The Color Wheel Company to devise a color wheel specifically for gardeners.

If you invest a few minutes in reading the paragraph of color theory on the front of the Gardener’s Color Wheel and the description of the color schemes on the back, you can begin planning your own color combinations right away. But if you read the booklet first it may give you even more ideas. It won’t take long.

When I was working on a book about color in the garden, I wanted to use an image of a color wheel created by The Color Wheel Company. To that end, I made a phone call. When a voice answered, I asked to speak to someone in their public relations department. Ken Haines allowed as how he was the department, and also president of The Color Wheel Company. We have been fast friends ever since. He has been to my garden; I have seen photos of his, and of course, we have worked together to develop the color wheel for gardeners. The two-sided rotating wheel shows color relationships, and an eight-page booklet includes important definitions, examples, and photographs of gardens.

Love your gardening, ’til next time!

Sydney Eddison has written seven books on gardening.

For her work as a writer, gardener, and lecturer, she received The Connecticut Horticultural Society’s Gustav A. L. Melquist Award in 2002; The New England Wild Flower Society Kathryn S. Taylor Award in 2005; in 2006, the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut’s Bronze Medal. In 2010, her book Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older won the American Horticultural Society Book Award.

A former drama teacher, lifelong gardener, and Newtown resident for sixty years, Eddison’s love of the English language has found its most satisfying expression in four volumes of poetry: Where We Walk: Poems rooted in the soil of New England (2015); Fragments of Time: Poems of gratitude for everyday miracles (2016); All the Luck: Poems celebrating love, life, and the enduring human spirit (2018); and Light Of Day: Poems from a lifetime of looking and listening (2019).

The trick to using color effectively in the garden is not in learning a new language, but in learning how to be able to tell a warm red from a cool red. Sydney Eddison made it even easier a few years ago when she collaborated with The Color Wheel Company to devise a color wheel specifically for gardeners.
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