Planning color in the garden
Use of color wheel complements four elements of a good garden

August 25, 2005
Victoria County Master Gardener

One of our readers asked us to address what kind of plants would grow and result in a colorful landscape in the Victoria area. Last week's article discussed plant hardiness and identified a number of plants that could survive in this climate. Another consideration is selection of plants that will result in the color patterns you desire. Today I will share some of what I learned through the master gardener program regarding planning a colorful garden.

Recently, I along with some fellow master gardeners attended the Texas master gardener conference in Denton. These conferences always offer great, interesting workshops that give us ideas to bring back home.

One workshop I attended was "Color In The Garden" presented by a Denton County master gardener. It was so wonderful to look at slides of beautiful color in the landscape - something we don't usually have this time of year in South Texas. I'm doing good just to keep the nutgrass out of my beds - not to mention all of the watering that must be done. However, I still have hope that one day I, too, can achieve color in August.

After I returned to Victoria from this event, I immediately started researching plants that could possibly withstand our heat and provide color (watering is still a must). Of course, I took copious notes from the workshop that I will share with you.

First of all, our presenter stated that the elements of good garden design have four aspects: 1) focal point, 2) unity, 3) movement (eye flow), and 4) depth of field. He also said we can complement all four of these through the use of color and the color wheel. (I never really thought seriously about this; I usually just see something I like and plant it). Also, the color wheel consists of primary colors - red, blue, yellow, etc; secondary colors - violet, green, and orange, etc. When referring to the wheel, it is important to keep in mind that dark colors recede - therefore these typically should be planted in the back - and light colors advance - these should be planted in front.

The three major color schemes in a garden are 1) monochromatic (varying in one color from dark to light), 2) complementary (opposites on the color wheel), for example, yellow and purple, and 3) analogous - three or more that are next to each other on the color wheel. Keep in mind, however, that design, and especially color, is all very personal. These are just some basics that are good to know.

Use of specific colors is also utilized depending on where the bed is located. For instance, white is a good color to use in dark, shady areas such as by a doorway, in the front of a bed. Burgundy and red (this one we were told to use sparingly) are good for lighter areas. Silver and/or gray are good transitional colors to help with the "flow" of color. Some good examples are artemesia and chrysanthemum pacificum. For large specimen plants, "big ear" lambs ear is a good choice.

Another way to add interesting color is to garden with little color - such as using different hues of green. Good examples are the different types of ferns, solid and variegated. This works especially well in shady areas this time of year when color is rare.

Other ways to introduce color is pots, chairs, stone or tile, brick, etc. For those who do not have the yard space for beds, a multiple pot container garden is perfect. You can vary texture, color, height, form - all of the bed basics by using different pots and plants that complement each other. Placed in groupings, this arrangement makes a beautiful focal point. A good combination of plants for this type of garden is Rose of Sharon (or morning glory vine as an alternative), pansy, sweet alyssum, blue fescue grass, and lavender. The Rose of Sharon is tall so it should be in the back of the arrangement, followed by the pansies surrounding the blue fescue grass or lavender in two or three pots in front. The blue fescue grass adds a contrast of texture and color. This particular arrangement prefers a sunny location. The pots to use would be a 24-inch for the Rose of Sharon, and three 12-inch containers for the pansies and fescue grass. Another way to finish off the look is to put a small, low statue or figurine in the middle of the 12-inch pots.

For a beginner perennial garden in full sun, some good plant choices are chrysanthemum, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, daylily, and Shasta daisy. These plants are easy to grow, reliable and require minimal care in our area. They can also be used for an informal cutting garden. One good way to determine the layout of any bed is to use your pots if the plants are already in them and arrange them the way they look best. This will give you a preview of how the bed will look and allow you to make adjustments before replanting in the ground. Be sure to follow instructions on the tags that come with the plants to make sure that the spacing is correct. Don't worry if the bed looks sparse; the young plants need room to grow. I won't go into detail on preparing and creating the soil in your bed because I know in this column we repeatedly remind readers to test the soil, add organic matter to enrich the soil, etc. If you do not follow this column regularly, any of the local garden centers can assist you with the correct way to prepare your bed. You can also find all of these plants locally. If they are not readily available, your favorite garden center will be happy to order what you need.

I hope this information will encourage you to be creative with color in your garden as it did me. After all, creativity in design is personal taste, and your options are many.

One last important item worth mentioning is the Fall Gardening Symposium, sponsored by the Victoria County Master Gardener Association. The event will take place on Saturday, Sept. 24. We have some great speakers lined up who will tell you about tropical plants for our area, native plants, citruses, and plumerias. Lunch and a presentation on floral design will be included in the registration and we have a silent auction, door prizes, goody bags, and a plant sale with plants grown and propagated by our own master gardeners. Look for more details coming soon in The Victoria Advocate. If you haven't attended before, you're missing a treat and a great learning experience ... and if you are one of our regular attendees, we look forward to seeing you there.