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Designing with Colour


Driving around the Okanagan recently, one cannot help but notice the beautiful and vibrant colours in the landscape.  It seems as if the spring rains and sunshine have washed the world in a palette of colours for our pleasure.

Of course now is also the season for enjoying planters, baskets and containers potted up with the bright summer annuals we love so much.  All these new colours which have appeared almost overnight has made me think we should talk about understanding colour and how to effectively use colour within the landscape to best effect.

Some people have a natural flair and a great instinct for mixing colours, but if you find this difficult then learning a few simple rules can help.  The best place to start is with the colour wheel.  Learning a few simple rules based on the placement of the colours within the wheel can give you an insight into what works and why.

The Colour Wheel is based on the natural spectrum of the rainbow and comprises primary, secondary and tertiary colours.   The three primary colours are yellow, blue and red. Two primary colours are needed in equal quantities to create the three secondary colours: purple, green and orange.  Finally, the six tertiary colours are made by mixing equal parts of one primary colour and one secondary colour.  The six tertiary colours are: yellow-green, yellow-orange, orange-red, red-purple, purple-blue, and blue-green.

Colours that lie directly opposite one another on the wheel are complementary.   Using complementary colours of the same intensity in a planting scheme can create a very dramatic look.  For example, try using blue and orange together or violet and yellow.

Harmonizing colours are those that lie adjacent to one another on the wheel.  Very successful plant combinations can be created by using colours which are in harmony with one another.  For example, use blooms in hues of red, red-orange and orange.

Monochromatic arrangements can work well too.  To achieve this look, you would combine light, medium and dark shades of one single colour.

Green is the neutral colour of the plant world and works well with every other colour.   You can also use different shades of green to create a monochromatic planting scheme.  Adding a splash of one other colour with shades of green will work too.

White can be used to tone down strong colours. White blends the pallet.

By now the range of summer planters on display around local gardens can teach us a great deal about colour.  Some planters are stunning, some not so.  Now is a good time to observe and try to analyze which colour combinations work, which don’t, and for what reasons.

In addition, studying plant combinations in gardens in your neighbourhood can help you to understand what colours work well together and, perhaps more importantly, what you like and would like to incorporate in your own garden.

Good design is not always about re-inventing the wheel.  It is as much about observing successes and failures, understanding why things work and then implementing those good ideas into your own projects.

If all else fails, look to Mother Nature for inspiration.