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Working in Color
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Working in Color



When I paint, I constantly play with color on canvas and experiment with various combinations to see what works well and discover what, to my eye, clashes or doesn’t seem to mix harmoniously.

As a landscape designer, I’m aware of working through the same sort of process when I discuss color with clients – determining their likes and dislikes and narrowing the color palette down to those hues, values and intensities that are most appealing to them. Some aren’t even aware until I launch into a discussion with them that they have particular tastes involving the color wheel.

In my experience, all these clients lean one way or another when it comes to warm or cool, pale or saturated, strong or subdued. In other words, one client will prefer pastels while another takes to primary colors. One will love yellow, while another will choose red as the favorite.

As I see it, it’s my job to guide clients in such a way that their color preferences are reflected in the setting we’re developing. To me, this is all part of helping them achieve their goal of creating a visually appealing view.


On any project, we as designers need to define clearly what range of colors will appeal most to our clients.

I begin by sharing a great book I’ve used for years: Color Garden by Malcolm Hillier (Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 1995). The pages are adorned with incredible versions of color wheels made up of flower petals, leaves and other botanical pieces to give readers a direct, realistic idea of what colors and combinations of colors look like in nature.

I run through a whole series of these wheels with clients, showing them different values and intensities using actual plant material for comparison. As mentioned above, I invariably find they tend toward one side of each wheel (warm or cool in particular) and often have strong opinions about the relative value and intensity of the colors they prefer.

Once I’ve established a range of color preferences, I more clearly define their color desires with a visit to a nursery where we test out in real life what we talked about while reviewing Hillier’s book.

This is a great check-and-balance system and helps us make certain that the vision we’ve developed in looking at the book stands up when we look at the real thing: The nursery visit will either confirm their choices – or clearly point out their confusion about their own preferences.

In cases where they’re just not sure, we’ll take a third step, hopping in my car for a tour of well-maintained neighborhoods in which they can see combinations of plants in full-scale, real-life settings.

Somewhere in all of this, I almost always nail down their tastes. There are exceptions, of course, but this progression from book to nursery to tour usually delivers us to a working set of color selections – and any wrinkles that remain can be ironed out later when I show them the plant palette I’ve selected.

It’s important during this process to be aware that some colors are naturally more prominent in nature. In southern California, for example, I find that whites, purples and (of course) greens are the primary botanical colors. This is occasionally an issue, as with a recent client who asked me to exclude purples from her landscape. Believe me, I’m having a tough time finding enough variety to satisfy her other preferences while leaving out all those plants with purple flowers!


A more fundamental problem emerges when you run into the unusual client who just doesn’t care for green. I once worked with a woman who fell into this category, and I found it challenging to find reasonable substitutes for plants as well as creative ways to address a much-narrowed color palette.

Fortunately, the garden style in her case was contemporary, with clean lines and no fuss. This allowed me to use plants with gray, burgundy and other non-green foliage to satisfy her desires, and the result was a garden perfectly suited to her unusual tastes.

A case such as hers brings up an important point about incorporating colors into a given setting: As designers, we need to develop integrated visions of how settings work and can’t depend upon plants and plant combinations to provide all the color any more than we could to an expanse of decking, the surface of a watershape or the appearance of walls and other architectural details.

In fact, there are many ways to bring color into a landscape with and without plants, and all components must be seen in the context of a much bigger picture.

If you have clients, for example, who have asked you to come up with a paint color for their home or hardscape, a trip you might take with them to a paint store can provide you all with an entirely different opportunity to figure out ways to use color effectively. And this is key, because in my experience, colors seen in the botanical world are perceived differently by clients than are paint colors on a wall.

What this means is that you can’t assume that clients who love yellow as seen in a golden Rudbeckia would want paint of that same brilliant color splashed across the exterior of their home. In fact, small percentages of colors can make a big difference: Where a single red rose looks beautiful against almost any backdrop, that same ruby color plastered on a six-foot-high, 50-foot-long retaining wall would be overwhelming to most people.

As designers, in other words, we all need to see that plants aren’t the only way to bring color into the picture. On that level, our responsibility for incorporating color into the landscape becomes even more substantial.


To develop these all-encompassing, entirely effective designs, we need to see everything our clients will see on the visual plane as a strategic opportunity to bring color into the landscape.

To name just a few, here are some details to consider in trying to pull your client’s favorite colors into the mix:

[ ] Walls. Whether it’s a low decorative wall, part of the house or a big retaining structure, any sort of vertically expansive surface presents you with a chance to bring color to a setting. Even as a backdrop for a botanical composition, a colored wall can create strong contrasts between itself and plants or just as easily blend into the background. To emphasize a wall, use bright, bold colors; to play it down, paint it with a neutral color that doesn’t create contrast.

[ ] Concrete. The range of color additives and highlighting techniques available with concrete is amazing these days. Concrete masons and finishers have access to many products that enable you to select integrated, permanent colors for decks, driveways and patios in much the same way you select colors for wall paint.

[ ] Stone. Though most stone types tend toward earth tones, some have bolder hues that stand out. Where this is true, using a gloss sealer brings those colors out even more. Gravel can add color to the picture as well: It comes in many tones that enable you to cover non-planted areas with wonderfully textural color.

[ ] Tile. Using tile is perhaps the easiest way to add distinctive colors to a garden. Individual tiles can be dotted into concrete surfaces or walls, or they can be set up as “rugs” to draw attention to particular spots in a garden or on a patio. The colors available here range from the soft and subtle to the boldly garish, and tiles can be used as everything from small accents to large surfaces.

[ ] Wood. Different types of wood and the stains you can apply to them offer yet another means of introducing colors to designs. I’ve even used yellow stains on Adirondack chairs to add a bit of whimsy to a garden.

[ ] Furniture. Whether it’s by staining wood or simply by purchasing a piece of furniture with a finish of a certain color, you can address this issue with all sorts of materials – wood, metal, plastic and more. Some outdoor furniture comes in bright tones that make bold statements, while other pieces blend in by virtue of their softer, subtler shades. You can also add color with the fabrics found on cushions, umbrellas, curtains, flags and awnings.

[ ] Lighting. Subtly colored fixtures can be decorative highlights during the day and can be equipped with colored bulbs or filtered to play with perceptions at night. Lighting experts can offer a wealth of ideas on how best to exploit these possibilities.

[ ] Accessories. This is an easy and obvious way to dot colors throughout a setting: Using planters, statuary, sculptures and artwork allows you to work with colors in either bold or subtle ways.

As a landscape designer, my first instinct is to think about plants in bringing colors to outdoor settings. Increasingly, however, I find myself looking at a bigger picture that encompasses not only plants, but also walls, garden ornaments, furnishings, decking and all of the other design components I have at my disposal. I’ll use whatever it takes to create settings of compelling visual interest for clients whose color preferences I have carefully determined.

It can be a lot of work, but the results are often spectacular – and as surprising and satisfying as the canvasses I generate with brushes and paints.

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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