Two color chords in perennial garden design are formed by colors on opposite sides of the color wheel and are found by putting a ruler across the center point of the color wheel, connecting opposite colors. For example, blue-orange, yellow-purple, or red-green are opposite each other on the wheel.
Any two colors opposite each other are referred to as complementary colors.
When these pairs are used together in the garden, that is, when the flowers of complementary colors are planted side by side, they will generate the maximum possible color excitement. For example, imagine the red and green of a single annual geranium or summer blooming Lobelia cardinalis or the yellow of fall blooming Solidago contrasted with the maroon-violet of Eupatorium.
Red and green are on opposite sides of the color wheel as are yellow and maroon-violet.
To Increase Color Contrast In Your Garden
To increase color contrast in the garden, find the color of your chosen plant either from memory, from catalogs, or from the photographs on this site. Then look directly across the color wheel to find the complementary color. That color is the one you are searching for.
Naturally, you will have to find it in a plant of similar bloom time and height so that the contrast is evident. There is little point in having a spring blooming yellow plant and a fall blooming blue one if they are never seen in bloom together.
Advanced Tip: For the Color-Curious: Stability and Analogous Colors
Not only does this combination of complementary colors give us maximum excitement, it also gives us maximum stability. An interesting consequence of human perception is that the eye and human psychology automatically seek to find complementary. If we see red, our psyche demands that green be present and unconsciously will look for it. By giving the eye the complementary color, the psyche is satisfied and does not have to look further; it relaxes. This relaxation state is called “stable.”
When we see a yellow flower, we immediately want to see a blue one as well and the eye searches for the color blue. By providing it close by, the perception of the viewer is quickly satisfied. The garden view is stable.
Stable color combinations, whether in the garden or home, are reassuring. We may find them exciting if the colors are hot, or relaxing if the colors are cool but we will always be comfortable with the combination. In practical terms, if you want a stable combination, use colors on opposite sides of the color wheel.
Colors Side by Side Are Called Analogous
We took two colors on opposite sides of the color wheel to make a maximum impact color effect, but what happens when the colors are not on opposite sides? The closer the colors are together on the wheel, the less the impact of contrast will be, until they are right together on the wheel and the contrast is minimal.
Colors that are beside each other are called analogous. While there is still contrast because they are different colors, the impact on the viewer is not as great nor does it have the visual kick that gardeners often seek.
Analogous colors do have their place in garden design, mostly in creating relaxing gardens of low intensity.
Where some designers get into trouble is when a flower color such as yellow is put next to a pale green leaf. Both colors look sick and the garden appearance suffers.
You’ll often hear the word contrast tossed about in discussions of color in the garden. “Oh”, a visitor will say, “that plant contrasts so well with that other combination.” Or “Those plants go well together.” What they are really saying is that in their opinion the comparison between the plants is good.
Contrast is about comparison.
It probably sounds trite to say that you can’t have contrast without comparison but this is true. Why it is important in the garden is because there is always contrast happening. It may be happening with the dull brown, unpainted board fence behind the garden that sucks down the intensity of all flower colors or the dark green cedar hedge that makes every flower sparkle, but it exists.
Your job as a color designer is to figure out what the contrasts are in your own garden.
Is it the board fence? Is it the greenery of the hedge or other leaves in the garden? Is it other nearby flowers in bloom at the same time? Is it a house color or brick wall? Does the neighbor’s swimming pool feature prominently in your garden view?
What major contrasts exist in your garden (that are difficult to change) to influence your design?
Make notes and a list of the major things you need to find a contrast for.