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The value of colours in gardens and how they’re used in planting design

“In nature, light creates the colour. In the picture, colour creates the light.” – Hans Hoffman

My last blog explored how colour science can be applied to garden design particularly planting.  I introduced you to the Munsell Colour Order System and the five major and five minor hues. We explored how hue is important because it is the property of colour that has an impact on mood and emotion. But hue is only one of three elements that make up the Munsell system.  This month, our topic will be “value” – the lightness or darkness of a particular colour, and “saturation” – the intensity / purity of a colour.

In the Munsell Colour Order System, “value” is the term used to describe the lightness or darkness of a particular colour. It is determined by the amount of light that the colour can reflect.

Light colours – high value

‘Light’ colours are what we refer to as ‘high value’ colours (i.e. ones with a high reflectance). Painters often call these “tints”, from the process they use to lighten paint colours: paints with white pigment added to them are called tints. The term is often more loosely used to indicate any light colour.

Munsell value - light to dark - garden design

Light colours show up best against a dark background.  Darker garden greens can highlight the light colours, and make them glow especially if they are in shade, part-shade or in twilight. This is especially true for white or pastel gardens.

Light colours can get lost in strong sunlight.

Shaded areas of the garden can be brightened by using light-coloured plants such as white, light pink or pale blues. Hydrangea ‘Limelight’ is a wonderful example of a plant that works well in part shade, lighting up a dark area.

In the shade, dark colours tend to disappear unless they are surrounded by a lighter colour to provide contrast.

Light colours stand out against dark green and dark brown backgrounds.

Images from private gardens, Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Ian Lamond Photography.

Dark colours – low value

Dark colours can be described in colour science terms as “low value” colours.  They are sometimes also referred to as “shades”. This term also comes from painting and it describes the process of adding black pigment to a hue to give a lower value. Some of the darker hues – such as blues or purples – are, at their pure level, so low in value already that only a little darkening can take place before the hue becomes unrecognisable.


Saturation refers to the amount of colour present. It goes from almost-neutral grey to almost-pure colour/hue. It is also known as “intensity”, “purity” or “brilliance”.  In the Munsell Colour Order System, the term for this is “chroma”. Pure hues are the most saturated colours, while greys are the least. Saturation is possibly the most difficult attribute to understand because the definition of saturation changes with the medium.

In gardens, flowers with highly saturated hues can often be perceived as less natural looking.

Sherry Windels writes in ‘Garden Color

“A monochromatic colour scheme in garden design means that all the flowers are the same colour or differing values of the same colour. A true monochromatic scheme can create a feeling of spaciousness because the eye is not interrupted by another colour. However, a scheme in which everything is the same colour can be boring.”

In my next blog, I will start looking at colour combinations and include real-life examples 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

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