March 1 2006 12:00 AM

You know the feeling. You?re driving down the road and catch a glimpse of a landscape that practically reaches out and grabs you. You just have to do a double take.
Chances are, the first thing that caught your eye was color. The property may have included a striking retaining wall, fountain, and other elements, but what really caught your eye was the color.


In any landscape, color speaks volumes. Whether it?s a single color that pops over all the rest, a combination of colors that look stunning together, or a muted monochromatic palette, color speaks to and for a client. It speaks to a client by setting a mood when the space is used. It speaks for a client by giving others a glimpse of what the owner of the space is all about.

?A landscape has the potential to make a statement about the client,? says Jessie Atchison, communications manager for Ball Horticultural Company in West Chicago, Illinois. ?Whether it?s reflecting the corporate culture of a business or the personality of a homeowner, color plays a major role.?

And let?s face it, color not only speaks, it sells. Landscape professionals who cultivate their color expertise have a definite advantage in the marketplace.

?Using color in the landscape is such a great way for contractors to differentiate themselves,? says Atchison. ?It?s worth the time it takes to research different annual and perennial plant varieties to make sure you?re using the best possible plants in your clients? landscapes. Landscape color done right can have a major impact on your bottom line.?

Brian Helgoe agrees. Helgo is general manager of the residential landscape services group for Valley- Crest Companies, a leading national provider of landscape development and maintenance services. ?With many clients, landscape color is like the jewels on a ring,? says Helgoe. ?While a simple ring has its place, a ring with jewels is something to talk about and take notice. Without the ability to deliver distinctive color displays, many clients believe you can?t deliver a jewel.?

Setting the tone with color

One of the most important factors in effective color use is developing an understanding of your client and the personality and mood they are trying to establish. The Brickman Group, a full-service landscape firm with branches in twenty-three states, has more than sixty years of experience walking clients through the color wheel. ?Talk with your client to find out how they envision the space will be used,? says Bruce Hellerick, horticulturist with Brickman?s Penn Jersey Division. ?Do they want a vibrant entranceway to attract the attention of passing traffic? Or are they trying to create a serene space where employees can take a muchneeded break??

?Show tons of pictures and ask a lot of questions,? agrees Laurent Lavoisier, seasonal color specialist with Brickman?s Southeast region. ?What do they want to accomplish with their property? For example, a leasing company might want bright colors to attract drive-by traffic at an entrance, but once inside the property, they might want to set a more calming mood with pastels.?

He points out that part of the designer?s role is to provide education and expertise to the client. ?No matter what your client?s likes or dislikes, remember that it?s not only important to listen, but also to offer your technical expertise,? says Lavoisier. ?Don?t be afraid to tell customers what you think of their choices and give them the benefit of your knowledge.?

To help clients sort out their decisions, you can discuss the impact color can have on mood, and even on activity level. This is important for homeowners, who may be looking for a calming effect in their backyard, as well as for commercial clients, who may be looking for a palette that motivates customers to stop and take notice, or that promotes a positive attitude among employees. ?Look at a color wheel and select colors that are strong one way or the other to really set the mood,? says Hellerick. ?Warm colors (reds, yellows, oranges) can create a lively, exciting mood, while the cooler colors (blues, greens, purples) will create a calming atmosphere.?

Does the customer want contrast or cohesion? ?In selecting a plant palette, take a look at the surrounding buildings and existing landscape,? says Hellerick. ?Select materials and colors that blend
well with the colors in the buildings to create a harmonious flow. Alternately, you can choose a contrasting color to really set the landscape apart from the buildings.?

?The best way to educate clients is to sit and talk with them,? says Hellerick. ?Once you find out their basic likes and dislikes, you can then offer them choices, including visual examples of your suggestions. You can purchase books on annuals and perennials, or use seed company catalogs, or assemble your own reference guide with photos of your designs.?

?This can be as simple or as hightech as you think your client would like. For example, for many years, Brickman has created its own Seasonal Color Collection reference CD, showing hundreds of color combinations and looks from which a client can choose.?

You can also help clients understand how different types of plant material are used to paint the landscape. ?Every type of plant material has a role to play in creating an overall experience of the landscape,? says Hellerick. ?Trees and turf are like the glue that holds the landscape together. They are the grounding elements that provide a canvas for the showier elements.?

?Shrubs can help to frame the picture, or they can be the star of the show, depending on the type. Perennials ensure the canvas is never blank, often providing varied interest as the season changes.

Finally, bedding plants are the attention getters and your chance to really be creative in not only providing color, but in supporting your client?s property management needs. They grab the eye and direct it where you want it to go. A vibrant flower bed can help funnel traffic to your entrance, or a line of container plants can provide an attractive barrier to ?politely? keep traffic out of areas where you?d rather it not go.?

Developing your color IQ

Educating your clients is one thing. But how do you develop your own color IQ?

?There are lots of great resources for learning about using color in the landscape,? says Atchison. ?Check out the Internet; websites like can provide a great starting point for learning about top-performing, low-maintenance landscape plants. Regional trade shows?particularly those that focus on bedding plants?can be great places to learn about what?s new, as can trade magazines. The contractor?s wholesale grower is an invaluable resource for finding out which plants perform best in his region.?

?The best way to learn about using color is simple,? says Helgoe. ?Start planting color more often and experiment with new plant species, cultivars, and varying planting designs. Most importantly, have fun playing with color in the landscape. It always amazes me how creative landscapers can be when they work with color.?

?For inspiration, consider visiting flower trials,? Hellerick continues. ?You can find these at many universities; seed companies also have trial gardens. This is a great way to see what?s new and get inspiration for various color and texture combinations to liven up your floral displays. Do a search on-line for ?trial gardens? and you?ll find many options all over the country.?

Your color expertise will develop with practice. The time you devote to research, observation, and experimentation with new color combinations is well invested. Your inspired use of color will soon be one more reason why your landscapes are the ones that make people slow down for another look.