April 21 2008 12:00 AM
Properly used, annual color can invite, enhance, conceal, distract, relax or excite. But color can also be a meaningless, busy hodgepodge. Healthy flowers are almost always a worthwhile addition to a site. But if you brush up on color basics, you can be sure that your investment in time, labor and money gives you the best return.

While flats of mixed pansies might beckon the inexperienced, this jumble of colors should be limited to small spaces or containers. While a "polychromatic" color scheme, with any and every color, can look like a cheery carnival, it can have much less impact than a palette that is planned carefully. In general, masses of the same color create a much greater impact.

Of course, there are many exceptions to this "rule." Informal, "cottage" gardens rely on a mixed approach. However, the best of these have design and order that might not be readily apparent. For example, the bright orange coreopsis, the deep blue iris and the white alyssum might look informal and random, but are actually opposites on the color wheel, with white thrown in to set them both off to their best advantage.

The opposite of polychromatic is "monochromatic." This simply means a garden that is designed using all one color. This can make a dramatic statement, especially in a small garden setting. Although the concept of one color might seem boring, keep in mind that each color (or hue) has tints, which are darker, and shades, which are lighter. For example, visualize pale blue delphiniums behind "Imperial Blue" pansies with electric-blue lobelia planted in front. Keep in mind that no color scheme is purely monochromatic; there are always the various shades of green foliage as a contrast.


Using a color wheel to aid in your designs is an easy way to be sure you get the most impact. Colors are classified as "warm" and "cool." The right side of the color wheel is considered warm colors. These are red, orange and yellow. On the left side of the color wheel are the cool colors: violet, blue and green. Red-violet and yellow-green can go either way, depending on the colors you use with them.

Colors next to each other on the wheel are called "analogous." Opposites are "complementary."

Your color designs should strive for what color artists call "harmonies." Analogous harmonies are composed of colors each other on the wheel. For example, marigolds lend themselves well to an analogous harmony of orange, yellow-orange and yellow.

As you might easily guess, complementary harmonies use colors that are opposite each other on the wheel. This design style gives you the most dramatic impact. Picture bright orange marigolds with electric-blue lobelia and you'll get the idea. Or how about towering sunshine-yellow snapdragons with radiant purple petunias in front?

While analogous harmonies or monochromatic color schemes can be very effective, a dash of complementary color can add the pizzazz your design needs to make it truly stand out. Or try adding white flowers to bring out contrast.


When beginning a color program, evaluate the overall landscape. Remember, annuals are expensive and you want to make the most of the color they provide.

The human eye can see 7,000,000 colors. Some of these can be and irritants. Other colors and color combinations are soothing.

Yellow is thought of as cheery. When children are asked to draw a happy picture, they most often draw it in yellow. But beware that pure bright lemon yellow is the most fatiguing color. "More light is reflected by bright colors, resulting in excessive stimulation of the eyes," says J.L. Morton, color specialist and professor at the University of Hawaii. "Therefore, yellow is an eye irritant. On the other hand, since yellow is the most visible color of all the colors, it is the first color that the human eye notices. Use it to get attention." You can use yellow accents to draw people to an entryway. Have a garden eyesore? Use yellow in another, more aesthetic area of a site to distract attention from the offending view.

"Notice the difference between a yellow of the purest intensity and a softer tint. Also the size of the area that any color occupies determines the color effect," says Morton. "For best results, use softer tints of the hue or small quantities. A little bit of color goes a long ways."

Red is the most dominant of all colors. Red can have a physical effect, actually raising blood pressure, pulse rate and even your temperature. Red can also stimulate the appetite (ever notice how many restaurants have red and white checked tablecloths?) Try planting red flowers around outdoor eating and entertainment areas to be sure the chef gets extra credit!

On the other hand pink, a shade of red, is considered relaxing. Several years ago, prison officials noticed that brawls between inmates were reduced when walls were painted pink. Try planting pink flowers where they can be viewed from inside by stressed-out office workers. Or splash pink nicotiana (an added bonus is the wonderful fragrance) around a gazebo or spa for total relaxation.

Violet or purple is the color of luxury. Religious officials often wear purple robes and the color is often associated with royalty. Violet flowers at an entrance can convey opulence and a lavish feel. Purple is also associated with sensuality. Planting exuberant purple petunias around that spa will probably evoke a much more passionate reaction than pink!

Although blue might not be opposite red on the color wheel, color scientists tell us that our psychological response is the opposite of red. Blue can lower blood pressure and pulse rates. It is considered restful and sedate. Most men say that blue is their favorite color. Incidentally, because (with a few exceptions) blue does not naturally occur as a food color, it has also been shown to suppress appetites. Meals served on blue plates and a blue light in the refrigerator are dieters' tricks to eat less. So if your clients love to cook and entertain outdoors, you might want to think twice about planting blue flowers near dining areas.

Keep in mind that the warm colors tend to pop out at people, while cool colors recede. This is especially true in shaded areas. Therefore, while blue flowers might make an impact along a pathway or near a seating area, their drama is lost if they are across a garden or a stretch of turf. To show off blue or violet flowers even more, surround them with yellow or white.

Try different color "themes." The best interior designers pick three or four colors for a home's interior. You can do the same with the great outdoors. These theme colors will help unify different areas of a site. For example, use pink petunias as borders around each planting bed. You can emphasize the theme colors with flowering woody ornamentals, bulbs and perennials. You can even use one of the home's interior colors as a garden theme to unify the inside and outside.

The great thing about experimenting with color is that you almost can't fail. Colorful flowers are bound to put smiles on clients' faces in almost any combination. But with a little planning, your color designs can make you a true landscape artist.


Each year, design experts at the Color Marketing Group query design professionals and analyze trends to come up with the preferred color palette. CMG says that consumers have a greater appreciation of the environment this year. Hot colors for 1997 are rooted in the natural elements. Representing the earth will be warm browns and rich greens. Watercolors include aquas, sea blues, and deep-sea purples. Whites, near-whites and grayed pastels are air signs. Finally, reds, yellows and oranges symbolize fire.

Also on an annual basis, the National Garden Bureau compiles a list of stellar new bedding plant varieties. This year, be sure to look for the following:

Begonia semperflorens -- fibrous begonias -- are easy and reliable, taking a wide range of exposures from full sun to deep shade. New colors are available this year in the "Ambassador" and "Senator" series. Ambassador Rose blush is a soft rose, while Senator Deep Rose is a new addition to the bronze-leaf series.

Celosia "Castle Orange" joins existing pink, scarlet, and yellow Castle Mix. The feathery six-inch flowers last a long time and tolerate heat and drought.

Cosmos "Sea Shells" tower almost four feet in shades or rose, pink, white and carmine. The tubular petals have fluted edges, giving the daisy-like flowers a two-toned effect. Cosmos makes great cut flowers.

Gerber daisies also make a good cut flower. Try the new Rhumba Hybrids, a fully double daisy. The big (four to five inch) blooms come in yellows, fuchsia, rose, scarlet, orange and apricot.

A couple of years ago, impatiens took over petunias as the biggest seller in the bedding plant market. There are several new varieties to choose from. "Cajun Mix" is specifically bred for Southern gardens, with short internodes that won't get long and leggy in heat and humidity. "Impulse Coral" has salmon-pink flowers with scarlet center splash, and is up to 20 percent larger than most impatiens flowers. "Mosaic Lilac" is a shade lover with mosaic splashes of white, giving the flowers an illusion of texture. The popular "Super Elfin" series has two new colors: Deep Pink and Melon.

The new "Troubadour Yellow" marigold has large yellow blooms and boasts early flowers. "Disco Mix" marigolds run the gamut from deep red, bright yellow and pure orange in both multi and single flowers.

Old hippies will appreciate "Tie Dye" morning glory. The 6-inch, sky-blue flowers have swirls of navy blue stripes.

Nicotiana "Heaven Scent Mix" features great fragrance and an improved dwarf habit, although they can reach up to two feet. The mixture includes crimson, rose, red-purple, light purple and white.

Who doesn't love pansies? This year, look for "Fama Lilac Shades," blending bold and subtle hues of lilac. "Ultima Lavender Shades" also go from pale to bright, and are recommended for containers. "Skyline Pink Shades" and "Clear Sky Rose" boast a superior root systems that lets them recover quickly after frost, and they can be overwintered as far north as Minneapolis and Detroit.

"Meadow Pastels" Iceland poppies are a superior cut flower on 24- to 30-inch stems. They come in more than 10 shades of white, cream, pink, rose, yellow, orange and even bicolors. Although technically a biennial, it flowers the first year.

The former popularity contest winner, petunias, also has plenty new varieties to chose from. "Bravo Mix" is tightly branched grandifloras that resist breaking apart in bad weather. "Double Cascade" has more flowers and a tidier habit than other double petunias and blooms two to three weeks earlier than other doubles. "Horizon Lavender Sunrise" is a single multiflora combining clear lavender with a yellow starburst throat. "Merlin Light Salmon" is dwarf and compact. Finally, "Pink Wave" produces an abundance of three-inch flowers on cascading plants only six inches tall and up to three feet wide. Try it as a groundcover.

Finally, the Georgia Gold Medal winner for 1997 is Blue Wonder Scaevola aemula. Blue Wonder is extremely vigorous and easy to care for, providing a continuous display of medium-blue flowers all summer. Thousands of tiny baby-blue fan flowers form a four-inch-tall carpet in the landscape. It was originally introduced from Australia as a hanging basket plant, but has proven to be a terrific performer in color beds.