It is quite rare that a perennial garden only comes in two colors so using three-color chords in garden design is the simplest way to create harmonious plant combinations. Even the celebrated “white” garden of Vita Sackville-West had more than simply white and green in it.
To further the analogy with music, a three-color chord with an equilateral triangle is a major chord while the isosceles triangle is a minor chord. Both sound fine (and look good, too) when used appropriately.
What you want to do is cut out the triangles (take a screen capture and print it out). You find your color chords by placing the triangles over the color wheel.
What happens most often with beginning piano players and garden designers is that two notes are struck well but the third note or color is a disaster; effectively ruining the chord and its effect.
If, for example, you choose a three-color combination of yellow, red and blue then this will be one of the most powerful combinations possible. It will ring true in the music of the garden.
But if the choice is red, yellow and violet, the entire effect will be lost as the bottom of the triangle has not stretched out far enough to make a good chord. The color has been misplayed and, while possibly interesting, it will never achieve the impact of a well-planted color chord.
The triangles can be rotated on the color wheel to pick and match any color with its associated chord colors. You can do this now as part of your design efforts or you can do it in your garden or even while shopping at the garden center to check out whether the new plant matches the rest of your existing garden.
Using a minor chord (our isosceles triangle) in the garden creates powerful combinations but with more subtle effects. Again, it is important that the chosen colors hit the points of the triangles as closely as possible so the effect of the chord in the garden will ring true to garden viewers.
For maximum impact in the garden, use major chords produced by the equilateral triangle.
Both Wheels Together
A comparison between the colors in each of the wheels
For the Color-Curious: Primary colors.
The primary colors – red, yellow and blue – are the most intense and offer the highest contrast in the garden. A three-color chord of these colors is going to create the most visual excitement possible. Visitors will not understand exactly what is happening but they will be visually stimulated and your reputation as a designer will be ensured.
For example, in the fall garden with its emphasis on yellow flowers, the addition of blue and red asters, blue gentians and blue Perovskia will all contribute to making an exciting primary color contrast.
The lesson to be learned here is that when you experiment with color combinations, you now have a general guideline for success.
The real lesson is that when you look at your existing garden, you’ll understand what happens when you’ve planted two or three plants (that bloom at the same time) together and you’ll have a sense of whether that combination works (or not.)
And Just To Add Another Note
Take a good look at the foliage in your garden. When you look carefully, you’ll see the different shades of green on the leaves. From gold tones to blue tones and just about everything between, you’ll notice (more and more as you look for it) those interesting shades.
And you can design for those shades of green as well. The simplest example is with Hosta in the shade garden where you combine different shades of gold-leaved hosta with the blue shades for contrast.