March 14 2013 01:06 PM

Color is one of those topics on which everyone has an opinion and no one agrees. What’s garish and gaudy to one person is bright and cheerful to the next. Our color preferences depend upon our life experiences, our cultural backgrounds and even the physiology of our eyes.

Drive through any neighborhood, and your eye can’t help but be drawn to those homes that are bathed in color, with beautifully arranged annuals, perky perennials, elegant rose bushes. We also notice the homes that are drab, with maybe one lonely tree in the yard, and that’s it. You wonder if anyone lives there. Color makes a house look like a home. It makes a business look prosperous. It makes the world a nicer place. Putting color into a landscape is part of our job. But to do it well, we don’t have to become experts in color theory. A few simple principles can be our guide.

There are really no rules, honestly, when it comes to using color,” said Lisa LaPaso, a certified master gardener and landscape designer. She owns Lisa’s Landscape and Design in Austin, Texas.

Of course, the overriding concern, whether the property in question is commercial or residential, is the client’s taste. What colors do the owners prefer? Next, how much maintenance are they willing to pay for? What style is the property, traditional or ultramodern? What type of weather prevails in the area, and what season is it now?

Color is a very personal thing,” says Scott Deemer, owner and president of Outdoor Craftsmen, a high-end full-service landscape company with an emphasis on design/build, in Erie, Colorado. He’s also a landscape designer. “Clients need to communicate with designers as to what their desires are. Some clients will flat out say, ‘I hate purple,’ or ‘I want only white flowering gardens.’”

We definitely tailor each project to suit individual clients’ tastes, and take a comprehensive approach to their lifestyles.” One of the first things Deemer does is to go into clients’ homes and check out their tastes in art. He also notes what color palettes are being used in the interiors.

Deemer travels around the country often, and he’s noted definite regional color preferences. “I grew up in the green industry, in the Chicago area, but I’ve been in Colorado since 2000. Even though both are in Zone 5, there’s a very different basic taste in what landscapes look like. In Chicago, they grow things that are more lush—hostas, bleeding hearts, ligularias.” 

In his current region, it’s more about different textures than colors. “We’re in the high desert of Colorado,” Deemer says. “Natives to this area love the beautiful natural colors that you find in the mountains, the greens and the browns.”

Selling point

As a landscape contractor, you may be called upon to “stage” a home’s exterior to bump up its “curb appeal.” Color choice plays a big role in this. Studies have shown that color in a landscape adds dollars to the sale price of a home. One done by Alex X. Niemiera, a horticulturalist at Virginia Tech, revealed that a well-landscaped home can sell for as much as 13 percent more than a home without landscaping. This study also showed a distinct preference for the inclusion of annual color plants.

When landscaping a home up for sale, “You should treat the front lawn like you would the living room,” says Thom Abbott, an associate broker at Thomas Ramon Realty in Atlanta, Georgia. “You definitely want something with color that will make the home just as inviting as it would be in the summertime.”

When LaPaso stages a landscape, she tends to ‘neutralize it.’ “Instead of a wide variety of a lot of different colors, which some people find too riotous, I select one common color and organize around that. Even if the main color is red, I try to maintain a neutral palette that the new buyer can add to later.”

Choosing a theme

Having a color theme is helpful, whether you’re staging a landscape or simply designing one for the continuing enjoyment of your clients. If a home has a lot of red or blue on the outside, try planting some white flowers in front, suggests Abbott. Contrasting, yet complementary, colors are the key.

“It’s not about just dumping color into a landscape; it’s coming up with a central theme,” says Jason Witherspoon. He’s the maintenance supervisor at Color Landscapes by Michael Dickey in Burlington, North Carolina. “A lot of thought goes into it. You have to take into account the buildings’ color and the colors of the existing plant material.”

Sometimes, clients want something that doesn’t really work. A lot of Deemers’ clients ask for white flowers. He’s happy to provide them, with one exception. “White clashes with concrete,” he explains. The whiteness of the concrete tends to wash them out. Instead, he steers customers who want white in those locations toward bright yellow plantings.

When working with color, don’t forget shape. Deemer travels all over the country for his high-end clients, looking for pieces to put in just in the right spots, emphasizing sculptural elements to harmonize with the architecture of their homes.

LaPaso tries to create a visual flow. “If I put a big red tree or shrub on one side of a yard, I put flowerpots on the other side with some red flowers to balance it. Particularly with the hotter, brighter colors, the more intense the color, the more important it is.

Then the rest of it is just fill-in.

You might use a three-color palette. I’m particularly fond of orange, white and red. “ She also uses different plant heights to balance a design. “I did one that used tropical sage. It only gets about a foot tall, but it’s a bright, blood red. On the other side I had a coral bean, with a two-footlong flower stalk that the hummingbirds all come to. It’s huge, and occupies a big, large corner. So by using that low plant on the left, and the big, tall red one on the right, it carries your eye the way that you want the flow of the yard to go.” Her advice to newbie designers is: symmetry is everyone’s friend.

Weather is also a factor. “It gets so hot here during the summer that I think it looks refreshing to see a landscape with cool colors in it,” said Witherspoon. “So I might go to a cooler spectrum of the reds and pick one that looks like it might have some blue in it, not one of the hotter, orangey reds.”

The color wheel

Even if “there are no rules when it comes to color,” there are some principles. Witherspoon uses a color wheel when planning his landscapes. A color wheel simply arranges the basic colors into 12 sections according to pigment value. The three primary colors, red, blue and yellow, are called that because you can make all the other colors from them.

“I design a lot of commercial properties that take hundreds of flats of annuals,” said Witherspoon. “When you’re coming up with a color theme for a large property, you have to make sure the flowers all work together.” That’s when he uses the color wheel.

“You’ve also got to know what shrubs and trees are going to be near them, and what they’re going to look like in that season,” Witherspoon continued. “Am I going to have too many different shades of pink together, or pinks and reds? Are they cool reds, or warm reds? You’ve got to consider all of that together. It makes the difference between something looking just okay or looking really good.” One of his favorite combinations are cool reds and purples mixed with darker blues.

Witherspoon makes sure each landscape is different every year. “The beds that I designed last year had lots of warm colors, bright reds, yellows and oranges. This year, I chose a lot of cooler reds, blues and interesting foliage colors. We want people to look at a property and say, ‘Ooh, look what they’ve done! I wonder what they’ll do next year?’”

Annuals or perennials?

No question about it, perennials are easier. Plant ’em once and they stick around for years. “For sustainable gardening, they’re the way to go,” says Witherspoon. “And they’re getting better and better. But for that big, bright burst of over-the-top color, you just can’t beat annuals.”

Annuals are less expensive than perennials; however, they require more labor—pulling old flowers out, installing fresh soil amendments, and they have to be replaced. That’s why they’re brighter than perennials. Like Fourth of July fireworks, all their energy goes toward blooming as brilliantly as they can during their short lifespan.

Witherspoon adds that colorful annuals won’t make up for a landscape that’s deficient in other areas.

“The best annuals in the world won’t look good without a background of healthy trees and shrubs,” he says.

Don’t forget about winter

When choosing permanent plantings, keep in mind what they’re going to look like throughout the year. “Very often, designers don’t think about what a shrub is going to look like during the cold months, when it’s devoid of leaves,” says Deemer. “For me, that’s a super important piece for something that’s going to be front and center all year long.” Whether the plant is in leaves or in flower, or completely barren of either, it should always be interesting.

“That’s where you have to look at some of those background players,” said Witherspoon. In his area, the Southeast, ornamental cabbages and kales do well during the winter. “They’re showy until it gets warm. When they start looking bad, we pull them out and switch to the summer annuals.”

If you’re in a warmer climate where winter color isn’t as hard to achieve, take advantage of it. “Here in Atlanta, we can plant flowers that will bloom in the wintertime,” says Abbott. Of course, not everyone is so lucky. Even in parts of the country with the hardest, longest winters, you can still find ways to inject colors other than snow white. There are a number of shrubs that flower in the spring or summer and fruit up with bright red berries in the winter.

You can also bring year-round interest by integrating evergreen perennials throughout beds. That way, when deciduous perennials are going dormant, you’ll still have color. Witherspoon likes miscanthus. “It’s an evergreen with an interesting leaf color during the winter. And any of the dwarf conifers make nice focal points in a landscape as it changes through the winter.”

“In general, winter annuals don’t produce quite as many flowers as summer annuals,” adds Witherspoon. For that reason, it’s very important to have a good background.

“There are lots of evergreen plants that can give you lots of color. Nandinas, for instance. They have brilliant red foliage during the winter.”

LaPaso likes a dwarf nandina called Firepower. “It’s just fabulous in the middle of winter.”

“You’re not going to get flowers in the winter months in Colorado,” says Deemer. “We’ll do some bulbs, like snowdrops and daffodils, things that start blooming as early as the middle of February; or some earlyblooming shrubs, such as cornis vas and witch hazel. We try to bring some of those varieties into the landscape, so that we get spring going as soon as possible.”


Besides obtaining a color wheel, there are some other resources that can help you plan a landscape palette. One of them is on the website of Proven Winners, a company that provides annuals, perennials and shrubs to retail outlets and landscape professionals. Go to Click on the “Professionals” heading. Then click on the box under “Jump to resources” that says “Landscapers.” There, you’ll find links not only to lists of annuals and perennials, but also plants that are best by region, shrubs with winter interest, and more. Plants are shown in full color. And there are lots of other resources easily found online.

Clients want color. And you want clients—preferably, happy ones. Planting pleasing colorscapes will keep your customers enjoying their property for years to come. Become skilled at this, and it should allow you to keep enjoying the color of money for decades to come.