There is a myth out there that you've probably heard before, that dogs see the world in black and white. Like all myths, this one has a kernel of truth: dogs are colorblind and only see blue and green. Imagine how monochromatic every flower garden would look in only two colors.
On the other hand, butterflies— who love to flutter around around planting beds—have two color receptors that we don’t, and can see more color than we can. Perhaps that’s why, as we do, they seem to gravitate to flowers—the more colorful, the better.
Colorful flowers and plants can make a bold statement on a property. They can create a mood, draw people in, and leave an impression. That’s not to say that color displays are as easy as a walk in the park. All sorts of factors go into making a display that’s beautiful and feasible at the same time, and customer preference is just the tip of the iceberg.
Still, people can be deeply affected by a strong splash of color, which makes annual displays an attractive option for residential and commercial clients alike. Knowing how to make an attractive display of plants, when to sell that display to your client, and then how to keep it alive, can make a splash in your wallet as well. By stretching their creative muscles, landscape contractors can build their business while finding a fulfilling artistic outlet at the same time.
The first step is the fun part— learning to let your inner designer out to play. Whether your customer base is primarily residential, or commercial, any landscape can benefit from a beautiful color installation. If you aren’t sure where to begin, remember that you’re not trying to reinvent the color wheel.
You may remember the color wheel from art class as a kid. It’s just the 12 most even mixes of the primary colors: red, green and blue, arranged in a circle. Shades that are next to one another are ‘analogous’ and will look good together, as will shades which are across the circle from one another, which are called ‘complementary’ or ‘contrasting’ colors.
“I use a color wheel a lot of times when I’m trying to make a choice,” said Debbie Jones, operations assistant at Reno Green Landscaping in Reno, Nevada. She does a lot of annual bed designs, and she uses the wheel “to get contrasting colors, or tonal colors, colors that look really good together.” Tonal colors are lighter or darker shades of the same hue, and can be used to create visually striking blocks of color.
Some landscapes have a defined purpose, and a good design takes that into account. “You are trying to think of their space and what it is that they’re trying to achieve,” said Jones. If an area is going to be a hotspot of activity, you might want to consider hotter colors like red, orange or yellow. A quiet suburb with a more pastoral feel might benefit from cooler colors like blue, green or violet.
Of course, the client’s wishes are paramount—it’s their property after all—but not all customers feel that strongly. When they look to you for advice, it’s helpful to have some tips and tricks to fall back on.
Jerry Stoffield, horticulturalist and maintenance specialist at David J. Frank Landscape Contracting, Inc., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, always asks his clients what their favorite color is. “If it’s a commercial company, I try to select colors that match their company logo, or draw something off of their building that might fit,” he said.
Designing a display isn’t just about color, there are other components to keep in mind as well. “Some plants peter out too quickly, or they stay too low and you can’t really see them when you’re driving by at 35 mph,” said Jones. “So you want to select ones that have large enough flowers, and will put on enough of a show that you’re going to get the most impact for your money.”
“We break up our annual displays into thrillers, fillers and spillers,” said Stoffield. Centerpieces are composed of eye-catching ‘thriller’ plants, surrounded by more commonplace ‘filler’ plants like petunias, begonias, and zinnias. The rest of the space is taken by the ‘spillers,’ vines like potato vines (scolanum), scaevola, and wave petunias.
Designing is only part of the field of color installation, and it’s important to keep in mind that each region has its own plants, and its own climate. The turning of the seasons will dictate what you can plant and when you can plant it.
“In the springtime, we’ll install pansies on some properties, to give them a little bit of color,” said Jessica Booth from Borst Landscape & Design’s garden maintenance department in Allendale, New Jersey.
Pansies are a common choice for many spring displays. They’re particularly hardy, and come in a variety of colors, making them ideal for the spring season, which can be as short as a month.
“The big first color for us up here is bulbs and cool-tolerant annuals, we would usually be doing that in April,” said Stoffield. Lower latitudes can start earlier, and the lowest latitudes may differentiate seasons more by convention than climatic necessity. The limiting factor is temperature, as a solid frost can kill delicate plantings and damage active irrigation systems.
The big season for annual displays across most of the country is summer. “That gets planted in May,” said Jones. “I’d say there aren’t any restrictions on plant variety at that point in time, other than what’s available for purchase.” This is the big show, when designers have the most freedom and pull out all the stops to make displays which could last as long as five months.
Depending on the client and the plants used, some break the season in two. “Summer is obviously our longest rotation,” said Carrie Owen, sales and service manager at Reno Green. “Sometimes, our clients like that display freshened up, so they might have four rotations,” she said.
This season usually comes to a close around September, and gets replaced again by cool-tolerant plantings. American fall traditions do afford some colorful opportunities that spring does not. Pumpkins, gourds and other vegetables fit in with the motifs of late October and November, and bring a classic fall palette to a landscape.
If the display is in a ground-level bed, cool-tolerant annual bulbs may be able give a little extra bang for their buck. Tulips, daffodils (narcissus) and hyacinths can sometimes survive the winter, and come back of their own volition in the spring. “As those die back, you have to let the foliage of those bulbs completely droop over and almost turn brown,” said Stoffield. “Because you want the sugars that are in the leaf structure to go down to the bulb, which then swells back up.”
Winter doesn’t have to mean the end of landscape decoration, either. Covering planting areas with the boughs of an evergreen tree like a balsa, spruce or pine is not just attractive, it offers those beds some protection from the salty runoff of de-icing efforts.
“In a raised planter, employ vertical elements like red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana), white birch (Betula papyrifera) and holly, which has really pretty red berries,” he said.
Naturally, knowing what to plant and when to plant it is only half of the story. The contractor then has to keep that display not just alive but thriving, which is often easier said than done. “Your main season annuals are going to require the most maintenance,” Booth said. These delicate flowers need all the help they can get.
That starts, as always, with the ground. Stoffield warns against relying on the site’s topsoil alone, without any amendments. “Try to bring in a blended organic matter soil,” he said. “It’s gonna help these plants grow healthy and strong, to be able to combat infection and disease problems better than they would in your garden variety soil.”
Irrigation can also be an issue. The grass on most lawns is able to withstand a higher degree of moisture and shade than the average flower, so an irrigation system designed to water a lawn may not be optimal for chrysanthemums. Where possible, the easiest method is to employ drip irrigation, which can soak the roots without hitting the flower.
Displays with annuals will also benefit from some sharp attention as well. Pruning or ‘deadheading’ annuals will eliminate unsightly spent flowers, and encourage new growth.
A flower that’s done blooming is spending the plant’s energy trying to seed, and deadheading stops that process in its tracks, sending the flower back to square one, making a new bloom. “You can generally get petunias to rebloom through proper maintenance, by pruning them back and cleaning them up,” said Booth.
Maintenance isn’t the only challenge in annual color, either. “People don’t always see the value of spending a good deal of money on something that’s only going to show for four or five months,” Stoffield remarked. Color prices are almost always rising, and clients can feel like they’re burning money when they see their expensive display being removed.
A vibrant color display raises property values, attracts customers and helps put visitors at ease, but all that is beside the point. The point is that this is art, it’s beauty, and that has always existed for its own sake. If utility were all that mattered, all cars would be beige sedans, and houses would come in one of a handful of layouts.
That said, there are a few things you can use to sway a reluctant buyer. Perennials will come back year after year, sometimes with offspring, which can be very attractive to the budget-conscious customer. They also offer a structure in the winter when annual beds are empty.
Mixing perennials into an annual display does have its downside though, including limiting your color palette. “The annuals are going to give a really good show of color and be very full, while the perennials will be going through stages of flowering and not flowering,” said Stoffield. Getting these stages to line up can be tricky, if not outright impossible.
For businesses looking to plant annual color, fungi and diseases are a regular difficulty. If a particular strain of flower becomes widespread for some reason, (say, because it’s wildly popular) that provides increased opportunities for plant diseases to spread. Keeping abreast of the most prevalent problems, and which plants they affect, can help you avoid expensive headaches.
This will also require you to change up your game from time to time, as one plant or another becomes a problem, but change is part of the joy of seasonal color displays. What’s going to be the most striking varies from person to person, from property to property, and from year to year. Inspiration for a layout can come from all sorts of places.
Jones looks to interior design for cues about what’s going to be hot next. “There are so many things that are popular right now,” she said. “There are a lot of very muted color pallets. Succulents are extremely popular indoors right now, which will translate into outdoor designs.” Jones clarified that she doesn’t think that people will start putting in succulents, but utilizing their colors in outdoor designs.
Stoffield relies on keeping a weather eye out for new and interesting plants to find new material.
“Sometimes, I’m walking a street and see something that I’ve never seen before. I take a picture of it, go back to my office and try to figure out what it is,” he said. He usually finds that it’s some exotic tropical that would need winter storage to survive, but occasionally it’s something he can use.
The purpose of most landscapes is to enhance nature by applying an unnatural degree of order to it. The landscape contractor waters, fertilizes and mows to achieve this effect, to render nature into art. Color displays offer a chance for contractors to show their creativity in the most direct fashion—as a collaborative artistic process between them and the client, which benefits all involved. So the relevant question is, do you have a colorful vision?