form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care

Color Scheming…using color theory to create harmonious foliage combinations


We’ve written about color theory before (‘I’ve Got the Blues…’), and with spring’s hysteria now receding into summer, gardening life has calmed down enough that it seems a good time to revisit some of the basic principles that we can use to create striking and harmonious garden moods.  Remember, foliage generally endures much longer than floral displays, so getting the foliage colors right has a more lasting impact than pairing flower combinations.

color wheel plants, color wheel flowers, color wheel gardens, color wheel leaves

The color wheel is a must-have tool for garden planning

Generally, the most dramatic combinations are achieved by pairing complimentary colors – those that are opposites (across from each other) on the color wheel, such as red and green, blue and orange or yellow and purple.  These dramatic moments work best as exactly that – moments.  A garden composed entirely of pairs of complementary colors would almost certainly be too strident for most tastes.  Color wheel opposites, such as red and green, however, are striking and energizing in small doses, as in the leaves and bracts of Leucadendron ‘Jester’, here backed by Cupressus nootkatensis ‘Green Arrow’, which ably echoes ‘Jester’s  green tones.

Rich drama is produced by complementary colors.

In the far background is Acer palmatum ‘Mizuho Beni’, which not only repeats ‘Jester’s yellow, but soothes its dramatic stripes, by teaming with ‘Green Arrow’ to provide what is termed an ‘analogous pairing’ of yellow and green.  Analogous colors are those that are next to each other on the color wheel, such as yellow and green or blue and purple.  See how the green and yellow soften the ‘Jester’s bold colors?  Of course that splash of yellow in the leaves is an added bonus in the matching scheme!

The complementary color pair in front is softened by the addition of the yellow foliage in back. Eye-popping color without harshness.

‘Mizuho Beni’ is paired on its other side with its color analog, the lovely green Cornus mas ‘Spring Glory’ (truly stunning in flower, but pulling its weight as a foliage plant in late spring/summer and into autumn). By backing the maroon Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ with the analogous color pair of green and yellow, the drama is muted and kept from stridency and harshness.

Saturated soft pinks combine with deep greens in an eye-catching pairing.

When white is added to any color the resulting hue is said to be a ‘tint’, and is generally more subdued and of lower impact.  However, nobody told this Acer palmatum ‘Beni Schichihenge’ and Phormium ‘Jester’ that!  This pink/green combination is a variation on the complimentary color pairing of red and green – softer, but with its own kind of drama.  By not tinting the green (i.e. keeping the green shade of the Lonicera pileata deeper than the pink of the other plants) the resulting combination retains structure and strength.

Complementary colors provide vibrancy.

Adding black instead of white produces a shade, rather than a tint, and, with red, in practical terms gets you maroon instead of pink.  This pairing of two extremely well known plants, Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea ‘Nana’ (common barberry) and Geranium ‘Rozanne’, doesn’t need flowers to provide pizzazz.  Note that here, with the darker red shade, the slightly lighter green allows for contrast and brightness.

Try the same color pairing with succulents for a different textural effect.

The same effect can be achieved using succulents, in this case Delosperma nubigenum, with a light, crisp green leaf and Sempervivum tectorum ‘Red Beauty’.

The drama of complementary colors is enhanced by textural contrast in this pairing of a Japanese maple and a Phormium.

Adding gray (a mix of black and white) to any color creates a ‘tone’, and takes maroon to brown, and Phormium tenax ‘Jack Spratt’ is a satisfying, rich cocoa.  Again traveling to the opposite side of the wheel for the complementary color, we find that an even lighter green works best, in this case the chartreuse-hued Acer palmatum ‘Capersi’s Dwarf’.  Bonus points for its red-margined leaves and the great textural contrast between the two plants!

The strong contrast of the Phormium and the Cotinus is buffered by the deep green of Prunus lusitanica.

Another brown Phormium, P. ‘Dusky Chief’ pairs well with any number of light green or chartreuse-leaved shrubs, such as Cotinus ‘Ancot’, here buffered by the deep green of Prunus lusitanica.  If you haven’t got space for such large shrubs, try the same color grouping using smaller Phormium varieties and perennials such as Heuchera.

Analogous colors create softer moods with less tension than complementary colors.

A different mood is created using reddish brown with its next-door neighbor, apricoty-gold.  Lighter, brighter, and producing a pairing with less tension and impact than one made up of complementary colors, Physocarpus ‘Mindia’ (sold as Coppertina) and Spirea ‘Goldflame’ make a soft, mouthwatering combination for the months both pre- and post-bloom.

Pink and light blue are the analogous colors red and blue, tinted with white. This pairing is soft, yet retains richness.

Another analogous combination is pink and powder blue (the tints of red and blue).  In this case, Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Esk Sunset’ is paired with Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’.  Both tints are soft and undemanding, yet result in a pairing both rich and satisfying.

This triadic combination shows the softer side of Acer palmatum ‘Mizuho Beni’.

Technically a triadic combination, (three colors that are spaced evenly around the wheel), this yellow leaf (our friend ‘Mizuho Beni’ again) with its red stem floats in front of the powdery blue Cedrus libani var. atlantica ‘Blue Cascade’.  The most successful triadic combinations feature one dominant color, in this case yellow, accented by the other two.  The yellow displays more richness backed by the soft blue than it would if paired with green.

Cool greens in varying shades create a calm, soothing mood.

Finally, see what happens when color combinations are narrowed to the tints, shades and tones of only one color, in this case the ‘cool’ color green.  This restful grouping of foliage would lack definition and impact if it were not for the wide variety of leaf sizes, forms and textures.  Combining broad-leafed evergreens (Lonicera pilleata top left, Pieris japonica ‘Silver Flame’ lower center); conifers (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Barry’s Silver’ lower left, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Golden Fern’ lower right, Cedrus deodara ‘Silver Mist’ upper right/center) and the perennial Lobela tupa, this display is calming and serene 10 months of the year, only interrupted when the Lobelia blooms dramatically in summer and succumbs to frost for a month or so in the depths of winter.

So decide what mood you’re looking for – if it’s drama, go for complementary colors, if it’s calm, try analogs and if you are game to try something more complex give a triadic combination a whirl – and take your color wheel to the nursery on your next visit!

Copyright 2012 by Form and Foliage


11 thoughts on “Color Scheming…using color theory to create harmonious foliage combinations

  1. Beautiful color pairings! Thanks, it makes me want to change some of my garden plant placings.

    Sandy K.

    • Thanks, Sandy! You’ve got lots of space to play with, too! And the great thing about woody foliage plants is that they don’t require the kind of upkeep demanded by most perennials. Sara and Jan

  2. You seriously tempt me to make some radical changes in the gardens around my new home! I definitely want one of the Berberis, but I just got rid of, thankfully, four 7′ tall Phormiums! Totally out of character for the style of home–an important consideration. Am looking forward to using some of your excellent ideas–which the brilliant photos so wonderfully illustrate. Keep ’em coming.

    • There are so many great Berberis out there, especially since here in No Ca they keep their leaves longer than in colder zones. The ‘evergreen’ varieties are only leafless for a couple of months. Try ‘Admiration’ or ‘Orange Rocket’ or ‘Lime Glow’ or ‘Maria’ – all brilliantly colored. Great green varieties, too. Now Phormiums are a different matter…at this point we have pretty much ruled them out, due to size and reversion issues. As our friend Dick Turner (former editor of Pacific Horticulture) likes to say, ‘if you have a Phormium that hasn’t reverted, you just haven’t had it long enough!’ Sara and Jan

  3. Thanks for this great post, I always need to remember the rules of the color wheel, sometimes it spins too fast in my brain and I get confused!

  4. Pingback: Stylish Simplicity – Paul and Paula’s Garden | form and foliage

  5. Lovely work in the gardens and website!

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