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Lambright: Use of scale, complementary colors in landscape design

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This will probably date me, but I first learned landscape design in the days before AutoCAD or any other software programs.  

Our instructor at the community college was a landscape architect with a great sense of humor and pithy words of wisdom. I’ll never forget his instruction regarding laying out landscape bed shapes: “Don’t make it look like you were eating a piece of toast, and it dropped jelly-side-down on your plan!”  

What did he mean?  We had learned that the human eye can be directed using lines and color, and little squiggly lines can’t be “read” as well as large curving lines.  One of the easiest ways to determine a pleasing design in your yard is to use a garden hose to lie out different patterns until you find the best shape.

S-shaped curves are pleasing, easily read, and more mower friendly than squiggly lines. When deciding how big the bed should be, utilize the principle of “scale.” A small bed adjacent to a large home looks equally out of place as much as a massive bed in front of a small cottage.

I realized early on in my landscaping career that everyone perceives colors differently.  

Men are more likely than women to be colorblind because the genes responsible for this trait reside in the “X” chromosome. Since women have two “X” chromosomes, there is a greater chance of a woman having the properly functioning genes.

Maybe all the jokes about men needing their wives to pick out their clothes are true?  

Even people with “normal” vision will experience the same color in slightly different ways according to the makeup of their eyes’ cells. Plant descriptions and images on gardening sites can be confusing because of this perceptual difference. Plant genetics and location can alter flower color as well. Since the perception of color is essentially subjective, the arrangements listed below may or may not excite you. That’s ok! Find the combinations that speak to you.

Now let’s delve into some basic color theory.

Fortunately, plant colors don’t come in plaid or polka dot varieties, so there is no chance of making that fashion blunder! Red, blue and yellow are “primary” colors.  Mixing red and yellow creates orange, blue and yellow creates green, and red and blue creates violet.  Orange, green and violet are “secondary” colors. You can go even further to make “tertiary” colors (mixing a primary color with a secondary color), but that’s for the fanatics (you know who you are).  

The color wheel, originally created by Sir Isaac Newton, is like a pie with 12 equal slices representing these colors.

One of the easiest color schemes to remember utilizes the colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel; they are called “complementary” colors. Purple planted next to yellow, green adjacent to red, and blue paired with orange will immediately draw the eye to that color scheme.  

A note of caution here:  use complementary colors as accents or focal points. A whole garden planted in complementary colors will leave your visual palate confused, much like the sounds coming from an orchestra’s warm-up session is slightly jarring to your ears.

What are some complementary color combinations utilizing xeric plants?

— The purples of Rocky Mountain beardtongue (Penstemon strictus) or Pike’s Peak beardtongue (Penstemon x mexicali) combine well with the yellow Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata).  And, yes, there is a fragrance of chocolate!

— Another great purple/yellow combination is Salvia ‘May Night’ (Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’) or Salvia ‘Caradonna’ (Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’) paired with Kannah Creek buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum var. aureum) or Colorado Gold gazania (Gazania linearis).  All of these plants have an extended bloom cycle.

— For an inexpensive focal point emphasizing blue and orange, you can’t fail when combining California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and Blue flax (Linum lewisii).  Both of these plants are easily grown from seed.  I would avoid using annual marigolds for the orange color, as most annuals require quite a bit more water than these xeric perennials.

— Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) combines beautifully with Sunset hyssop (Agastache rupestris).  The clusters of hyssop flowers are colored a rusty orange with hints of yellow, red and lavender.

I will continue to discuss landscape principles and color schemes in upcoming articles.  

A plant fanatic might find some of these principles constraining, so I would recommend following your heart’s desire. At least your little corner of the world will be a much happier place, and heaven knows we need a lot more of that.

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