How to Use Colour in the Garden

You may be comfortable with how to use colour in your wardrobe, or in your interior, but have you thought about how to use it in your garden? There are a few things to think about when applying colour theory to your outdoor space, as it can really change how the garden looks and feels. 

Back to Basics

To give a brief overview, colour theory is based around the colour wheel and the way in which different colours work together. On the wheel are primary, secondary, and tertiary colours, and from this different colours can be grouped together to create successful combinations. 

There are four core colour schemes: 

Complementary Scheme

Uses any two colours directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, for example blue and orange. As one colour is warm and the other cooler, the scheme is balanced. However, it is best if one colour dominates otherwise the overall effect can be over-stimulating. 

Monochromatic Scheme

Uses any one colour for the majority of the garden, a great example of this being The White Garden at Sissinghurst (though calling white a colour is a whole other discussion which I won’t go into now!).

Hydrangea paniculata

In a monochromatic scheme, depth is then added through the use of different textures and forms, creating variety and interest. The choice of colour dictates the mood, so purple creates a tranquil atmosphere, whereas yellow is cheerful and uplifting. 

Analogous Scheme

Uses colours that appear adjacent to one another on the colour wheel. This option can use three and five consecutive colours on the wheel. My advice though would be to stick to three colours, especially in a smaller garden. The scheme is most effective when one colour is dominant, and the other two are background colours. 

Split Complementary

A variation of the complementary scheme which uses two colours on either side of the opposite complement. So for example blue, yellow-orange and red-orange. In a late summer planting plan, this could be Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’, Crocosmia ‘Paul’s Best Yellow’, and Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’. This combination introduces more variety than a complementary scheme would. 

Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’

How to Apply the Theory

Armed with this knowledge, you can now begin to think about which scheme to use in your garden, depending on how you want the garden to feel and to which colours you are naturally drawn. 


If you want a calm, relaxing garden then using cooler colours works well. They recede from the eye and consequently make a garden feel bigger, so are particularly effective for smaller spaces. You could opt for a monochromatic scheme which just uses one colour, such as purple (a combination of Iris Reticulata, Allium ‘Purple Sensation’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Nepeta ‘Walkers Low’, and Verbena bonariensis would take you through from spring to late summer). 

Verbena bonariensis

Or you could opt for an analogous scheme where you add adjacent colours such as pinks and blues for a fuller colour palette, for example blue hydrangea. A cottage garden lends itself well to this concept, and works best if you use the same strength of colour (referred to as the value), for example all pastels or all slightly richer hues. 


If you want to be drawn outside and energised by your garden, then hot reds such as Geum ‘Mrs Bradshaw’ or rich yellows like Achillea filipendulina ‘Cloth of Gold’ would give the desired effect. These warm colours are advancing, so they catch the eye and draw you into the space. To mix things up, you could then add an accent sapphire blue, for example Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Hensol Harebell’, to create a jewel like palette using the split complementary scheme. 

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Hensol Harebell’


Maybe you want a bit of both so the garden can feel harmonious through a balance of colours. In which case, a complementary scheme of blue and orange, or purple and yellow, would work well. 

These schemes can also be mixed up as you move through the seasons to create different effects, or if you have the space you can form different ‘rooms’ in your garden which each have their own ambience defined by colour. 

Where to Apply Colour

It is natural to think of flowers when considering colour in the garden, but do not forget about foliage, as the leaf colour could be one of the hues in the scheme. 

You can use annuals to good effect, which is an economical way to experiment with colour using just a few packets of seed, and without committing to a scheme as you would when purchasing potted, perennial plants. 

The hard landscaping can also contribute to the colour scheme in the colour of a bench, shed, fence, wall, or even in the paving. And you can introduce colour through accessories such as outdoor cushions, rugs, and planters. 

I hope that gives you some inspiration to evaluate the use of colour in your garden. Remember that these are guidelines based on a well practised theory, but do not feel that you need to stick religiously to them. By having a basic understanding of colour theory, you can knowingly bend the rules to create your desired effect. As always, the best way to apply this knowledge to your garden is to experiment to see what works best for you, and most importantly, have fun doing it! 

It would be great to see how you use colour in the garden. Share your pictures in our Facebook Group or tag @scotlandgrows on Instagram, or Twitter to show us your colour combinations. 

Katie runs Katie Reynolds Design which offers garden and interior design services across Aberdeenshire and the North East of Scotland. She is qualified in both sectors, having trained at KLC School of Design in London and the National Design Academy. Follow Katie for more inspiration on Instagram and Facebook.

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