Dec. 31, 2020

Color in the Garden

Color in Garden Design
(A version of this article was published by Phil Waite in the Washington State Master Gardener’s Magazine in 2007)
Often, a gardener’s favorite winter pastime is reading plant and seed catalogs. We look at all the wonderful full-color images and dream about what we might see in our gardens in the coming months. Chocolate brown grasses, lime green shrubs, yellow leaved vines, pale white relatives of the blueberry family that don’t even have chlorophyll, black-leaved cannas, rainbow striped bamboos – the list goes on and on.  But while the options for color in the garden keep expanding, many gardeners struggle with how to use color effectively in garden design. We all remember the color wheel from our high school art class and the application of analogous or complementary colors in design. Books and articles on using the color wheel abound in the literature of garden design. But the purpose of this brief article is to look at some of the other considerations of using color in garden design, namely the personal and symbolic meanings associated with some colors and the physiological impact of some colors.

When we see a color, we’ve experienced the sensation of that color. Sensation creates an innate and unlearned physiological response to color. For instance, scientists know that seeing the color red results in an autonomous bodily response - among other things, both heart rate and respiration increase temporarily when we see red. Sensation in turn is always followed by perception. The perception is the understanding and interpretation of the sensory event – the application of meaning to the color. For instance, in South Africa red is the color for mourning, while in China and Japan, red is the color for good luck. So any given color will produce both an innate and unconscious physiological reaction in the viewer as well as a conscious (albeit sometimes subconscious) reaction based on personal and cultural symbolic meaning.
What are some of these reactions and how might they be applied in design? First, garden designers should note that there are always personal associations with color. Whether based on upbringing, personality, or training some individuals will always have a specific color preference.  These preferences may not be rational, but they are nevertheless legitimate and can be accommodated in the garden’s design

Our response to color is also a learned one based on societal and cultural considerations. For instance, in the U.S. and Northern Europe, black is often the color associated with death and mourning. But as noted earlier, in South Africa, red is the color for mourning, while in China and Japan, red is the color for good luck. In China and Japan it’s white that’s the color associated with mourning; in Thailand it’s purple and in Iran it’s blue. In the U.S., the combination of red, white, and blue are associated with the flag, patriotism, and national loyalty. In many cultures, purple is the color associated with royalty. Designers need to be aware of both the intended messages as well as the unintended subliminal messages their designs may be sending .
Lastly, designers must understand the psycho-physiological impacts of color. Color and light influence both our emotional and physical states and consequently our behavior. For instance, green is the color that is easiest for the eye to perceive. For this reason it’s long been known to be a relaxing color. This has resulted in settings like the “green rooms” of TV talk show fame where guests wait before their appearance. Hospital rooms are also often green to help patients relax and heal faster. (Although a room with a window view of vegetation supports even faster healing.) Pink is known to be a very calming color. Holding cells in the California juvenile court system are often painted “bubble gum pink” to soothe aggressive juvenile offenders. Pink can have a tiring impact as well- some NCAA football coaches have painted the visiting team locker rooms pink in order to gain an on-field advantage. It worked. (The NCAA has changed its rules to require that visitor’s locker rooms must match the home team locker room color.) While yellow is believed to be a cheery color, it is the hardest color for the eye to take in. Additionally, studies have found that people get angry the most and babies cry most often in yellow rooms. Research indicates that people are more productive in blue rooms, I.Q. tests taken in blue rooms result in higher scores, and if the gym is painted blue, weightlifters are able to handle heavier weights than in gyms of other colors. Scientists have long known that the color red increases both heart rate and respiration.  Restaurants often use red because it stimulates appetite. One researcher found that protection from red and yellow can at times diminish the severity of tremors, torticollis, and Parkinsonism.
While we often assume that color in the garden comes from only from plant foliage, fruit, bark, and flower, designers should also give consideration to the use and application of color in paving, walls, ornaments, structures, and garden furnishings.
General Guidelines for Using Color in Garden Design
  1. Because of their high visual energy, warm colors can be seen from a distance and thus appear to be advancing closer to the viewer. To make a garden look smaller, use warm colors.
  2. Because of their lower visual energy, cool colors cannot be seen as well and appear to recede from the viewer. To make a garden look larger, use cool colors.
  3. Cool colors are calming, restful, and serene. If you’re trying to create a cheerful, energetic, lively garden, don’t use them. See Rule 7.
  4. Warm colors are cheering, energizing, and exciting. If you’re trying to create a quiet, peaceful, relaxing garden, don’t use them. See Rule 7.
  5. Avoid using just one color – even if it’s one shade of green - it’s contrary to nature. It’s perfectly appropriate to mix colors as long as it’s done with knowledge and forethought. See Rule 7.
  6. Because colors have cultural as well as physiological impacts, never employ colors randomly or indiscriminately. Rather employ them to create or support specific emotional experiences sought by the design.
  7. Rules are meant to be broken (or at least bent) when and as necessary. Have fun with color!
Austin, Richard Designing With Plants New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982
Birren, Faber. Light, Color & Environment New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982
Holtzschue, Linda. Understanding Color, 2nd Ed. New York, John Wiley & Sons, 2002
Mahnke, Frank H. and Rudolf H. Color and Light in Man-made Environments New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1987
Nelson, William. Planting Design: A Manual of Theory and Practice, 3rd. Ed. Champaign, Stipes Publishing L.L.C., 2004