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Colour science in garden design & how hue can influence mood | November 2018

A Garden Designer must regularly interpret general concepts like structure and layout, as well as combinations of texture, form and colour. In this blog, I will be exploring the next level of understanding in one particular area: specifically the role of colour in garden design.

The starting point for our journey in search of knowledge and understanding will be colour science, as this is an area with which I’m especially familiar.

During my early career, I discovered a marvellous book called Color in Garden Design, by the American writer Sandra Austin. It is a rare gem for me because it provides an elegant link between my academic training and my passion for gardens. Whereas the majority of garden books exploring the subject of colour usually only focus on combining colours in planting, Sandra’s book was so fascinating to me because she explored colour science in the context of garden design. The discipline of colour science is all about the observation and measurement of colour; in art, colour is inextricably linked to creative expression: colour in garden design combines all three. It could be said that this book helped me to start my ‘middle aged’ interest in gardens early. Of course many people come to discover the joy of gardens (and gardening), but it is not usually until we are older that we appreciate how much green spaces and the natural world enhance our quality of life.

Defining and describing colour

In any scientific discipline, it is a good idea to have a common language and an agreement that certain words will have certain meanings. For example, we use Latin botanical names for plants to avoid confusion when dealing with nurseries and growers, especially if they are located outside the UK. In art and design, it is not enough to have only verbal definitions. There must be visual norms as well. In other words, you must be able to see the colours and understand their relationships.

The Munsell Colour Order System was named after its creator, the artist Albert Munsell in the early 20th Century. Artists and designers use this system as a means of specifying colours and showing how they relate to one another. The Munsell system defines a colour according to three distinct qualities: hue, value and chroma (saturation).  Once you understand the system, you can describe any colour you wish to duplicate!


Describes the quality by which we distinguish one colour from another: a red from a yellow; a green from a blue or purple.

Munsell hues: there are five major hues – red, yellow, green, blue and purple – and five minor ones. The minor hues are yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue and red-purple. Violet (purple-blue) has the shortest wavelength and red (and red-purple) the longest.
It is common for hue to be represented visually using a colour wheel or circle. By placing the colours next to each other on a circle, we acknowledge the visual relationships between them. Hue is considered to be important because it is the property of colour that carries the emotional connotations.  In other words, it has an effect on how you feel. Most of us understand the emotional meaning of green. It is said to represent restfulness and universally is associated with nature.

Hue and emotions

Sherry Windels writes in ‘Garden Color‘

“Green is restful to the eyes and is an important colour combination with cream, pink, red and even other shades of green. Green does not vie for attention or dominance yet it provides stability throughout the seasons. Green creates necessary voids that allow our eyes to travel from one part of the garden to another.”

Images from private gardens in Ilkley, Yorkshire UK. Photos by Ian Lamond Photography.

It is still common to read that red is generally perceived as exciting, blue is cool, and orange is hot.  However, designers must remember that the same colour can carry different emotional messages depending on its use and context.

Sherry adds that blue being a calming, cool colour works well around a water garden.  Likewise if used in pots surrounding a seating area, blue creates a restful atmosphere.

“Bright colours such as red and yellow are warm colours that excite us“, Sherry adds. They call attention to themselves and any objects near them.  Warm colours can also be overpowering to the eye and should be used carefully.

For more ideas on colour schemes for your garden take a look at this Garden Design Magazine article: “How to use color artfully, creatively and accidentally in the garden”.

It is unusual for pure hue to occur in a garden or landscape because you are not looking at flat or uniform surfaces.  Light can play off surface textures in a way that makes the object’s colour seem to change.  Colour matching paint to a flower colour is complex.  Yet there are sufficient similarities to enable you to train your eye to recognise the quality of hue in a flower and match is to a colour swatch.

Hue is always influenced by surrounding colours and backgrounds.  Lighting (time of day, season, atmospheric conditions, sun and shade) and the distance from the observer can all change the appearance of the hue. 

“we also suppose that we see only what we know . . . Very few people have any idea that sunlighted grass is yellow” – Ruskin

I plan to post more blogs on the subjects of colour and background in the future. In my next blog, I will be exploring the colour properties of value and saturation.  Beyond that, I will write about real-life instances when colour science has influenced my planting designs, as well as the advice and tips I have offered to my clients during my unique one-off consultations.

Further reading

Color in Garden Design: An Introduction to Color Theory and Design for Gardeners by Sandra Austin, 1998, The Taunton Press.  ISBN 1561581879

Garden Color, by Sherry Windels, Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University

Colour styling in gardens

Colour combinations using the colour wheel:

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