Colour in the Garden


It was a lovely sunny day today, so we sat in the garden and painted our old garden table. I had some old tins of garden paint, in various shades, so we set about adding a splash of colour to the boring old table. It was a bit of an experiment, mixing them together, so I was surprised what we came up with.

One of the primary consideration we have when planning our garden is colour. How will the colours of all the different plants work together? Personally, I love to see plenty of colour in my garden. It is never as carefully planned as it probably should be although I am lucky to have an advisor. My wife has the eye of an artist, and a great instinct when it comes to pairing colours, so it stops just short of a cacophony (mostly).
Planning for succession of colour is important. Many plants spend most of their lives just as leaves. They may only be in bloom for a few months or weeks (days even for peonies). When planning, we must consider both the timing of flowering, but most importantly, how the plants appear when they aren’t in bloom. Even at the height of summer most gardens will predominately be different shades of green.
Humans have a natural affinity to colour. It is thought our sensitive colour vision evolved to help survival. Our eyes have gradually developed a fantastic ability to accurately distinguish the colour of objects. The act of psychological perception of light also has a social context. It enabled us to avoid danger, and find food. Over the years we developed deep seated associations with colour. These associations vary considerably from country to country.

Blue often is thought of as calming and relaxing. Green is perceived as a healthy and reassuring colour. Yellow is vibrant and is often described as energising and Red encourages excitement and intense emotions.

Much of modern colour theory is based on work by Johannes Itten (1888-1967) who taught at the Bauhaus art school in Germany. Itten developed colour wheels to describe how colours go together. The colours were laid out in a circle with gradations of primary, secondary and tertiary colours. The theory is that colours opposite one another on the wheel are strongly contrasting but complementary. Colours near one another are ‘analogous’ and will work well when used together.
Our colour preferences can be strongly influenced by changes in society. Many studies have focused on the preference of colour in the 20th century. It is thought that prosperity encourages people to choose more bold and bright colours. In times of economic uncertainty they will choose a much more muted and subtle colour palette. Thankfully, gardens take much longer to develop, so colour palettes will not change so fast. Colour trends change annually in the fashion market, but long term changes can have an subtle, but inevitable influence on gardens.
Colour is not an absolute concept. Waves of different lengths enter the eye. They are focused by the lens, on to the retina. Here they trigger nerves that are sensitive to either red green or blue light. There are varying levels of each of these sensors in everyone’s eyes. Some people will be more (and less) sensitive to certain colours, (such as in colour blindness), causing our personal preferences. Some people also think age plays a part. Younger people are more attracted to bright primary colours and older people more drawn to more subtle tones.
In the garden we see colour in terms of three dimensions. One of the great advocates of “painting with colour” in the garden was Gertrude Jekyll. Her book: ‘Colour schemes for the flower garden’ is a masterclass in colour. Her famous herbaceous borders and were planned with swathes of colour from ‘hot’ colours (oranges, and reds) together, moving gradually through the full spectrum to the cool colours (blues and purples) at the other end. These colours can be used to alter the perception of distance. By placing hot colours near and cool colours away we make the border appear longer. By placing cool colours near and hot colours far away it appears shorter. the exception to this rule is white, which appears just as bright at a distance or nearby.
When planning areas in a smaller garden, it can be most effective to just use a few colours in the scheme. Don’t be frightened of adding a few flashes and highlights though. Too few colours, though appearing considered, also appears very unnatural. Be prepared to allow the odd self-seeder a bit of space and give room for a touch of chaos. We always seem to discover that some of the best colour combos come from no more than a fortunate accident. 

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Author: jlrobbins

I grow plants

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