Using the Colour Wheel to Plan your Garden

I have a complete fascination with colour.  Gardening seems to have intensified that fascination because there are endless variations in colour in nature.  Add changing light and shadow, the interaction of one colour against another, or the texture of a particular petal, a little bit of iridescence, and you have infinite variety.

We are all drawn to particular colours. I am very drawn to very bright and very deep, rich colours. I love deepest purple and sultry plums.

Papaver somniferum 'Cherry Glow'
Papaver somniferum ‘Cherry Glow’. A perfect combination of cherry and plum.

I love all shades of red, from those with a hint of pink, as in coral and cherry, those that are suffused with purple or blue, as in crimson and magenta, to those that are pure scarlet, or those that leach into vermillion and copper.  To accompany these favourites, I like a flash of gold.

Calendula officianalis 'Indian Prince' and Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'
Calendula officianalis ‘Indian Prince’ and Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’

I like brightest blue, or freshest lime green or bright green. I love indigo and violet, and purple that is verging on black.  I like colours that are clear as Indian ink.

Echinops ritro with Phlox paniculata ‘Purple Flame’ behind.
Lathyrus odoratus ‘Matucana’. The purity of these colours reminds me of batik.

I also have a fondness for the softer tones. A cottage garden filled with big blowsy roses and peonies, penstemons and hollyhocks.  A dappled mingling of pure white, soft apricot and peach, blush pink through to rich pink, lilac, icy blue…balanced with the deeper tones of burgundy-black and inky purple.

Penstemon ‘Sour Grapes’ with Geranium psilostemon behind

You see how rich and fascinating this world of colour in the garden is?

Does it help to analyse colour?  To use the colour wheel?

Primary, Seconday and Tertiary Colours

There are the primary colours: red, blue and yellow (we’re talking pigment rather than light here). If you look at the colour wheel below, the three primary colours are a third of the way apart from one another.  I will come back to this!


If the primary colours are mixed then we get secondary colours: orange, purple and green. These are half-way between the primary colours on the wheel, and are also a third of the distance apart from one another.

Then if we mix the secondary colours, we have tertiary colours: red-orange, blue-purple, and so on.  You can get even more subtle variations on this to make red-red-orange, and so on.

The colour wheel can teach us how to use colours for particular effects.

Hot and Cold Colours

There are hot colours: red, orange, yellow, and there are cool colours: green, blue and purple.  In my last garden my front garden made use of the hot colours (along with green) to pick up the evening sun.  Colours vary in the degree of hotness and coolness, and this is subjective to an extent.  Is green hot or cold?  How about plum?  They are at the boundary between hot and cold.  We generally perceive pastel colours (those with white mixed in) to be cooler than fully saturated colours.  Is this because we know light colours are cooler to wear?  A certain amount of synaesthesia kicks in here!

Contrasting and Harmonising Colours

Colours that are opposite or near opposite one another on the colour wheel create striking contrasts: red with green, purple with orange or blue with yellow. By combining these colours, they intensify one another: blue makes yellow more yellow; yellow makes blue more blue.

You can see this with red and green here:

Tulipa Couleur Cardinal and Rococco
Colour contrast of red tulips ‘Couleur Cardinal’ and ‘Rococo’ with bright greens of lupin foliage.

And with purple and orange here:

Geranium 'Anne Thomson' and Eschscholzia californica
Geranium ‘Anne Thomson’ and Eschscholzia californica

The primary, secondary and tertiary colours can be fully saturated, as in the bright colours, or they might be paler, as in the pastels. So from red, we get pink, from orange we get apricot, from yellow we get buttermilk, and so on. There are infinite gradations in between.


Here is another colour contrast with lilac Geranium ‘Orion’ and apricot Rosa ‘Roald Dahl’. Lilac and apricot have mid-range colour saturation (as opposed to deep purple and bright orange, which are deeply saturated), so they balance one another out.

Rosa 'Roald Dahl' and Geranium 'Orion'
Geranium ‘Orion’ and Rosa ‘Roald Dahl’. There is still a contrast, but the effect is softer because they have a mid-range saturation.

The colour wheel also shows us where one colour bleeds into another.


Planting similar colours that are close together on the wheel will give a more harmonious, relaxing effect, for example purples with blues, greens with yellows.

This is a harmonising combination of rich pink Rosa ‘Thomas a Beckett’ with lilac Geranium ‘Brookside’ and magenta Lychnis coronaria. They are all found between the red and blue third of the colour wheel, and putting them together encourages us to appreciate the subtle changes in tone.

Rosa 'Thomas a Becket' Geranium 'Brookside' and Lychnis coronaria
Rosa ‘Thomas a Becket’ with Geranium ‘Brookside’ and Lychnis coronaria

I have mentioned thirds quite a few times.  If you combine two colours which a are third of the way apart, I think you get a pleasing effect.  The colours aren’t yelling at each other; nor are they making one another insipid.

This is easiest to see on our simple colour wheel.

color-wheel1Colours that are a third of the way apart on the wheel are mid-way between a contrast and a harmony.  A good example that nature has found is the humble forget-me-not, with its sky blue and sunshine yellow.

Myosotis (forget-me-nots)

And here is another favourite combination of chartreuse green Alchemilla mollis with soft purple Geranium magnificum.  These are also colours that are a third of the way apart from one another on the colour wheel.

Geranium magnificum (4)
Alchemilla mollis and Geranium magnificum

But these rules don’t explain everything about colour. We all process colour differently and have personal associations. Colour is there to be played with.

There are some combinations that I just find incredibly pleasing.  One is magenta-purple and red.  They are next to one another on the colour wheel, but feel very different.  More different than green and yellow, say.

Hemerocallis ‘Crimson Pirate’ with Buddleija davidii ‘Royal Red’ behind.

Another combination I play with over and over is purple with orange.  The purple can vary from deepest indigo through to magenta, and even dusky pink.  The orange can be vermillion through tangerine, or it can be lightened to apricot.  But I love these hues together.

Lupinus 'Gallery Red' and Euphorbia griffithii 'Fireglow'
Lupin ‘Gallery Red’ and Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’.

Here an interesting combination of Lychnis coronaria and Rosa ‘Summer Song’. Magenta and burnt orange are in the same quarter of the colour wheel, but it is difficult to say whether they harmonise or contrast.  Perhaps because the Lychnis has a greater colour saturation than the slightly creamy orange of the rose. I love the unsettling effect where you are not sure if they clash.

Rosa 'Summer Song' and Lychnis coronaria
Lychnis coronaria and Rosa ‘Summer Song’

Maybe the combination above works for me because there is green to balance it out.  Green is about opposite to the midway point between the magenta and the orange.  Or is it that green just looks good with everything?

Here is another intriguing one.  This is Erysimum ‘Apricot Twist’.  There is a metallic purple tinge to the buds, contrasted with the apricot-orange open flowers. But it is even more complex than that.  the purple is tinged with turquoise, and the apricot tinged with coppery-purple. This is why I love colour. It is never straightforward.

Erysimum 'Apricot Twist'
Erysimum ‘Apricot Twist’

If I see a combination like this that has been designed by nature, I will often copy it in my borders.  Sometimes it is conscious, sometimes unconscious.

Here is Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ showing me that bright green with orange, gold and red is a zinging combination.

Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’

And here is Euphorbia martinii playing with deepest colour saturation of burgundy, with light and airy chartreuse.  This is another combination which floats my boat.

Euphobia martinii
Euphobia martinii

This post might just be the start of a little series on colour, texture and form.  Because I spend a lot of time pondering these things!

Do you use the colour-wheel when planning the garden, or other projects?  Do you make use of harmonising or contrasting colours?  Do you mix darks and lights to get different effects?  What are your favourite combinations?

My aim on this site is to share the sense of wonder I get from gardening and being outdoors.

If you would like to join the joy, click on the ‘Follow’ button at the end of this post. You will receive an email each time I post a little pop of wonder.

41 Comments Add yours

  1. Rupali says:

    These colours took away every bit of my Monday blues.

    1. Ali says:

      That is lovely to hear!

  2. Susan Beard. says:

    Enjoyed this post..thank you.

    1. Ali says:

      You are welcome, Susan.

  3. Both pleasing and educational. Beautifully written and photographed

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you very much, Derrick.

  4. Evelyn Flint says:

    I love colour and I use the colour wheel from time to time for my art work. But using it for planning a garden is not something I’d thought of before but it’s a great idea. We can learn so much about colour from nature…

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, I suppose I use the colour wheel to think about why I like a particular combination, and then that seems to appear in my garden!

  5. pommepal says:

    Now I know why your garden is so endlessly fascinating, it is your bold use of colour and combinations. Thank you for sharing all these tips with us. I use the colour wheel in art, but now I see great possibilities using it in the garden.

  6. FlowerAlley says:

    Well done and beautiful. Thanks friend.

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you. Xxx

  7. Beautiful and intriguing expose on color! My favorite photos were the Echinops Ritro and the Apricot Twist. Color is definitely an inspiration for my jewelry pieces where I do “play” with it in creating new pieces, much like you do in your gardens. I especially like variations in tone (saturation) and will often create monochromatic pieces with a a variation on tone. And, then they aren’t monochromatic, are they? Anyway, I like a deep rich colors in the garden for the most part. But, I do have one bed that has False Blue Indigo, Catmint, Siberian Iris, Perennial Geranium Johnson’s Blue, and Hostas for a cool greenish – lavender effect in the spring. Lovely post.

    1. Ali says:

      That combination sounds really lovely. Thank you for your lovely comment; it is interesting to know how colour is used in other crafts – as you say it is a wonderful way to play! My younger daughter and have a weird love of sorting beads and sequins into colours! So relaxing…

      1. Sounds like a great activity to sort beads! I am going to have my garden club students sort native plant types and invasive plant species during a lesson on invasive plants this fall! Not as fun as a color sort, but important for learning! And, I do love my “bluish purple” garden in the spring! It was an unplanned success! I just kept adding more bluish purple plants!

      2. Ali says:

        I have always been a ‘sorter’! I was the child who arranged their felt-tip pens into rainbow order!

      3. My youngest son (who is the artist I wrote about) was a sorter. He doesn’t do it much anymore, but was known for sorting his colored pencils and markers, too. Now, he’s into paints and I’m trying to get him to see that if he organizes what he has, he won’t have to keep spending money on supplies he already owns.

      4. Ali says:

        This sounds familiar! My eldest daughter is also an accumulator of artists’ materials!

      5. My son could supply several classrooms….

  8. bcparkison says:

    Oh goodness…I just go with the flow and what comes up comes up..

    1. Ali says:

      A wonderful way to do it!

  9. Perfect way to start my week: one of your visually stunning and delightfully educational posts and a good cup of coffee! Every post you write is a delight, Ali! 🌻

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I agree, it is lovely to read posts with a nice cup of coffee!

  10. Heyjude says:

    I try to co-ordinate colours in my planting, but sometimes things go awry, especially when usurpers find their way into beds they are not supposed to be in (like the sudden arrival of Crocosmia in my white bed). You definitely have an eye with colours and this shows in all of your planting. I tend to favour the orange through to purple side of the colour wheel, with green as a contrast. I tend to avoid yellow except in spring and this year I have experimented with white. I like the white, but not convinced it is ‘me’.

    1. Ali says:

      It is surprising how many varieties you buy that turn out to be different to what you ordered as well! I don’t have very much yellow either. I think daffodils satisfy my need for yellow for a good three months, and then by about this time of year I am ready for a bit more. Likewise with white; I just prefer colour.

  11. I love playing with color combinations in the garden. My beds are sorted by color. I have a blue/yellow/white garden, an orange/gray garden, and a pinks garden. I am planning a copper colored garden with shades of apricot and rust.

    1. Ali says:

      Your copper garden sounds utterly divine, especially with the addition of ‘rust’! Even the words for some colours set me off!

  12. jjspina says:

    Beautiful kaleidoscope of colors! Thanks for sharing. 💐 🌸 🌺

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you; lovely to share with you!

  13. Wonderful post, Ali; I’ve been a “colorist” for many years, so much fun!

    1. Ali says:

      And that is the important thing, isn’t it? I just like playing.

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you for your lovely link! I will be back to explore your site too – it looks great.

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