Using the Colorwheel to Create Beautiful Plant Combinations

Color Wheel: Pairs of Complementary Colors
Color Wheel: Pairs of Complementary Colors

When most gardeners think about plant combinations, they rarely refer to a color wheel.  And they should. It’s a tool that can be vastly helpful.  Maybe you saw one in kindergarten and remember the primary colors of red, blue, yellow. Secondary colors–the ones between.  Those terms are useful but not important for the designer. A more useful way is to think of the color wheel as pairs of complementary colors (colors opposite each other on the color wheel).  These are hues that team up to flatter each other and to appear more vibrant. And importantly provide contrast so you can see the color. Ever put purple against a dark green? You’ve paid for a plant you can’t see!

Color Wheel:  Tint and Tone
Tint, Hues, and Tone Color Wheel (Tint: add white, Hues: pure color, Tone: add black)
  The same vibrant and contrasting pairing works with tints (add white to basic color) and tones (add black to color). White’s in the center of the wheel. Notice that pale lavender pairs with its complementary yellow hue or tone. And vice versa. Dark yellow pairs with deep purple as well as lavender.
One last note:  Use colors in threes.  Suggestion:  Pick a favorite color, then select it’s opposite or compliment, and add one color that is adjacent (gives you four choices).  For example, looking at the wheel–if I choose blue, then the compliment is orange (remember includes the possibility of its’ tint– coral). For the third color you have four choices: red or yellow (the adjacent colors for orange) or purple or green (the adjacent colors for blue). The green could be a pale green foliage that adds to combination.
Yellow, Purple, Blue--Successful Color Triad
Yellow, Purple, Blue–Successful Color Triad
This Adrian Bloom Garden at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at Elm Bank in Massachusetts shows successful use of color.  You can create your own beautiful combinations using the color wheel.
Early Fall Container Arrangement in Red, Green, Purple, Yellow and Blue
Early Fall Container Arrangement in Red, Green, Purple, Yellow and Blue
The container arrangement above shows an advanced use of color. Primary pairing is red and green with a second complimentary pairing of purple and yellow with the adjacent blue. I choose these combinations because I wanted a rich but cheerful combination. Colors associate with emotions. Yellow bring cheerfulness to a composition and also spatially moves forward.  A topic for another blog.

2 responses to “Using the Colorwheel to Create Beautiful Plant Combinations”

  1. Hi Maria!

    So sorry I missed you at the Sudbury Garden Club. I would have loved to attend, didn’t hear about it in time to schedule. You may remember me from the summer I worked for John Rice. I am available for work if you have any projects that involve getting dirty and great design, my two favorite things in life! And I do hope to run into you in the near future.


  2. thanks for the information on your blog I found it very useful . I will pass your link on
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