March 1 2007 12:00 AM

Color has power. A splash of color can create a focal point where there was none before. It can draw a landscape together into a harmonious whole and define a style or mood. Too much color can be distracting, annoying, and even boring. But designers who are skilled in weaving colors into their plans can take a landscape from 'pretty good' to 'absolutely stunning' with very little extra cost.

"Color can be extremely powerful and is a very important aspect of landscape design," says Alissa Strickland, landscape architect for Mill Brothers Landscape & Nursery, Inc., in Fort Collins, Colorado. "Color in the landscape evokes emotions, enhances a mood or feeling, and can even help to make a garden feel larger or smaller than it is. It can draw attention and create excitement or emit calm to slow people down. It can help transition from one space to another, create proportion within a site, and accent or emphasize areas within a space."

Because it has such a high impact, the creative use of color is one quality that can really set a landscaping company apart. "Color is important for a company's success, because everyone tends to be so visually oriented," says Johanna James, landscape designer for Green View Companies in Dunlap, Illinois. "Color is a great way to get clients excited about a design. They can visualize 'a sweep of deep purple' more easily than if you say 'ten May Night Salvia.' If you can really key-in on a client's preferences, or the colors most appropriate to their specific house and site, the client will feel ownership of the design. They will feel that the design is special and unique to them, and that you have really listened to their needs."

While clients may not always be able to describe the particular scheme they want, they recognize a pleasing one when they see it. "Color is extremely important in creating beautiful landscapes," says Stacy Bernath of Spokane-based Clearwater Summit Group, Inc. "From matching hardscapes with elements on the house, to selecting flower colors to complement the same, if the color scheme doesn't work, chances are it won't be aesthetically pleasing."

Charles Newcomb, landscape designer for Akehurst Landscape Service in Joppa, Maryland, points out that color offers an important way for people to convey their sense of style. "It gives my clients variety," he says. "It sets their home apart and gives them a chance to express their own preferences."

Color can also be one of your most powerful marketing tools. "Great use of color makes for great images to place in a portfolio or to use in marketing materials," says James. But as she points out, it's in the neighborhood network that color really advertises the quality of your work. "People driving by a house will likely notice the color effects rather than the specific plants. Word of mouth is some of the best advertising you can get. If your clients are thrilled with the color, they are likely to tell their friends."

As powerful as it is, color is nowhere without other good design elements. We've all seen gardens that scream with color but nonetheless appear flat and monotonous. While clients may not know that it isn't all about color, a good designer should. "Clients will rarely request plants for their structural or sculptural qualities," says James. "As designers, we have to make sure color is layered on top of good structural bones. By giving the garden a well-designed backbone, the client will find the garden visually interesting, even in the less colorful seasons of the year."

5_4.jpgWorking magic with color

So, what are some tips for creating colorful, head-turning landscapes? As with most of the other tools at the designer's disposal, it starts with the client. In choosing a palette for a client, it pays not only to be a good listener but also a keen observer.

People who are not professionally involved in design are not always skilled in describing their likes and dislikes, but they will give important clues in how they describe something. They may tell you they love red, but what does this mean? Do they use the words 'country cottage' and 'red' in the same sentence? Or does 'red' for them mean a sumptuous burgundy?

Pay attention to your client's lifestyle and the colors they choose in the rest of their world. Do they tend to go for bold and bright or soft and subdued? These questions and observations can help establish an overall style, mood, or theme.

"Before starting a landscape design, it helps to have some ideas or inspiration for the color palette," says James. "Perhaps a client's busy lifestyle inspires a 'Moon Garden' where the hues are limited to whites, silvers, and pale yellows. Inspiration can be as simple as the client's favorite color, or it can be inspired by the interior decorating scheme of their home."

Set the tone

One of color's most useful attributes is its ability to establish a mood or undertone for a given space. "Color greatly affects both the mood and style of a landscape," says James. "Generally, the more limited the palette, the more formal the landscape feels. Using a simple palette of green and white can create a very classic feel. White and lavender can also give a sophisticated look."

Which direction you go with color will depend on how the space you're designing will be used, and the needs of the client. For example, do your commercial clients need eye-popping color to draw attention to their sign? Or are they creating a sedate entryway to welcome customers and put them at ease? If your clients are homeowners, are they creating an energetic area for weekend family fun? Or are they looking for a soft romantic retreat for two?

"Cool colors, such as blues and greens, tend to be relaxing and calming, and can make a small garden appear larger," says Strickland. "Warm colors, such as reds and yellows, tend to create excitement and draw attention and can make larger garden areas appear smaller. You might use a cool color palette of blues, silvers, and purples in a quiet sitting area to create a calming space, and use reds, yellows, and oranges at an entryway or around a water fountain or sculpture to draw attention to it."

Bernath describes her use of warm colors as 'exclamation points' in the landscape. "I'll use them to attract attention to a certain portion of the landscape, or I'll use them sparingly throughout for balance. If I need a unifying element, I will typically use a plant with a warmer color to move the eye through the landscape and grab your attention throughout -- white is also a good choice for that purpose."

The location of the viewer is important when choosing colors. "Because they recede, cool colors like blues, soft pinks, and purples are easily used in a situation where they will be viewed up close, such as around a small intimate patio space," says Bernath. "Since they are calming and soothing, these color schemes might be used for a private breakfast patio or a private garden adjacent to a master bedroom space."

Color has a big influence on proportion. "Colors are most effective when they match the scale of the garden," says James. "In a large space, large blocks of color are needed to make a big impact."

Keep in mind the light level in the area as well. "Brighter colors hold up better in bright sunlight," says Bernath. "Colors such as soft pink, soft yellow, and light lavender will tend to wash out in bright sunlight and will look better in a shadier or low light situation."

Newcomb notes that a day's changing light levels are a valuable tool for creating dramatic color effects. "I love to put the ornamental grass miscanthus where the late afternoon sun will hit it from behind," he says. "The tassels sparkle like diamonds."

Harmony and contrast

It's critical to keep in mind how landscape color will relate to the buildings and other structures on the property. "Try to use color in harmony with the house," says Newcomb. "Use it to complement and accent."

Bernath agrees. "If I'm specifying hardscape elements, I always refer to the types of materials being used on the house. We typically try to select complementary colors for the hardscape. Many of the homes in our area are more in the natural northwest style. Natural materials with subdued tones are typically used. For more contemporary homes, the palette is quite a bit larger. You'll see brighter colors in the hardscape as well as in the plant materials."

Using a quieter palette in the hardscape offers some design advantages. "A more monochromatic hardscape palette gives you the freedom to have a bit more fun with the plant palette," says Bernath. "Our clients tend to like a more subdued hardscape, but like lots of color for the plant material."


Think year round

When clients talk about color, they usually mean flowers, and are sometimes disappointed when their favorite colors appear for only one or two months in the summer. Show your clients that landscape color can involve so much more than flowers. By using everything from interesting bark colors to berries to seed heads and contrasting evergreens, you can give clients the year-round eye appeal they crave.

"When choosing plants, make them earn their keep," says James. "If they aren't attractive in more than one season, use them sparingly. For winter interest, use evergreens, plants with brightly colored berries, interesting bark, decorative seedheads, or texture that is highlighted by snow and frost. Layer early spring bulbs underneath deciduous shrubs, and in between perennials to add early interest without taking up much room. Consider fall color when choosing plants as well -- favor those that extend the season with great fall foliage color or decorative berries and seeds."

"We always try to incorporate hardy evergreens into the landscape for that winter interest," says Bernath. "In addition to evergreens such as pine, fir, hemlock, and rhododendron, we use plants with colorful bark like red and yellow twigged dogwood. I happen to love the paperbark maple, which has a reddish exfoliating bark."

"I use a lot of white," says Newcomb. "Some people don't think of whites as colors, but they are very striking. For example, the contrast of the white mottled bark of a sycamore tree really stands out against a gray winter sky."

Of course, color is not just about plants. Benches, walls, patios, and a variety of landscape accessories can also be used to provide year-round color. "A very simple and economical way to add color is in the use of pots," says Bernath.

"Groups of pots on a patio, porch, or deck can be planted with annuals during the spring, summer or fall to add another layer of color. Art and/or sculptural elements are also good ways to add a punch of color."

Know what works -- and work with it

Experienced designers develop winning color palettes that they can count on in a variety of settings. While Newcomb looks to his clients for initial inspiration, he trusts his own experience to know which colors look good together. "I've been doing this for twenty-some years and I have my own set of palettes that work well," he says. "For example, I like to use reds, golds, and blues together. While there is no one palette for everyone, I tend to use some colors frequently because I know they look good next to each other."

Developing your own set of striking palettes and techniques will make it easy to work magic with color for years to come.