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How to use color combinations

Ideas for combining colors in the railroad garden
1. This riot of intense colors, with snapdragons, marigolds, and other annuals, borders the mainline of Ned and Phyllis Ruetz’s Rock Canyon Garden Railroad in Michigan.
Don Parker
2. This hillside is spread with a variety of softer colors belonging to (clockwise from lower middle) yellow ice plant (Delosperma nubigenum ‘Basutoland’), blue Dalmatian bell flower (Campanula portenschlagiana), pink dianthus (Dianthus gratiopolitanus ‘Tiny Rubies’) with a sprinkling of sky-blue Turkish veronica and purple rock cress. (Photo taken on the author’s former garden railroad.)
Don Parker
3. The yellow flowers belong to Utah yarrow (Achillea sp. x ‘Utah’) and the red ones are of a tiny spirea (Spirea japonica ‘Bullata’).
Don Parker
4. The hot magenta-red flowers are those of Firewitch dianthus (Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’) and in front of those are blue Turkish veronica (Veronica liwanensis).
Don Parker
5. The yellow-flowered clump is a Mexican creeping zinnia (Sanvitalia sp. ‘Sunbini’) and the purple flowers are germander (Teucrium ackermanii).
Don Parker
6. The yellow-flowering tree is a weeping Siberian pea shrub (Caragana arborescens ‘Walkeri’) and the bluish-purple flowers are moss phlox (Phlox subulata).
Don Parker
7. These three heath shrubs (Erica sp.) show different hues of red, from the deep-red foliage of the bush on the right to the three shades of pink blossoms. Heaths bloom in late winter.
Don Parker
8. The pure white flowers of variegated rock cress (Arabis ferdinandi-coburgi ‘Variegata’) contrast with the purple flowers of moss phlox. These are spring bloomers.
Don Parker
9. The light-colored grass clumps are Elijah Blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’), which contrast nicely with the green conifer trees. (Photo of the seasonal garden railroad at Holden Arboretum, Willoughby, Ohio.)
Don Parker
10. A drift of blue-flowered lavender (Lavendula angustifolia ‘Blue Cushion’) towers over a clump of pink-flowering Dalmatian geranium (Geranium dalmaticum).
Don Parker
11. Purplish-blue Dalmatian bell flower (Campanula portenschlagiana) shares this rural hillside with lavender-pink Elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’).
Don Parker
A spot or two of color can add interest to a garden railway; a lot of color can add more interest or become cluttered and confusing, depending on how it is used. When placing several colors in one area, using the right combinations can increase the impact and visual pleasure. How that is achieved relates to combination choices and some understanding of color theory.

In this column, I’ll show how one color can be enhanced by its juxtaposition to another (or more) color. I’ll use photos in my collection to illustrate the impact of effective color combinations.

Photo 1 demonstrates how color can have an emotional impact. Whether you like the effect or not, the riot of color in this planting of annuals can’t be ignored. The colors are bright and intense and attention grabbing. They highlight and define the straight edge of the mainline on this railroad. As a side note, the plastic edging holding back the plants could pass for a painted wooden fence, transitioning the out-of-scale flowers into the scene of the railroad.

In photo 2 there are multiple colors, but the impact is subdued, compared to photo 1, by the pastel or lower-intensity colors. A variety of colors in close proximity is appealing to many people, thus the popularity of its use in decorative landscape plantings and cottage gardens. Which colors you choose and their intensity will determine the impact of the area.

Photo 3 demonstrates the juxtaposition of deep red and bright yellow. Both of these are primary colors (not made from the combination of other colors). The colors in this photo are relatively high intensity and draw attention to the scene.

Photo 4 shows an even higher-intensity red (almost florescent) next to another primary color, blue. Magenta-red colors such as this are so powerfully attention grabbing that they should be used sparingly or in a constrained way. In this photo, the color combination helps define the front edge of the railroad garden and does not impinge on the railroad itself.

In photo 5, the color pairs are yellow and purple. Purple (or violet) is a secondary color, a combination of red and blue. Purple and yellow (on opposite sides of the standard color wheel) are considered complementary colors—colors that play off each other to enhance the intensity or impact of the other. The most common complementaries are red and green—red flowers on green foliage.

Photo 6 shows another yellow-and-purple combination, this one with a more bluish-purple flower. The contrast is not as noticeable as with a more pure purple, but is still effective. The large area of yellow flowers on the tree becomes more interesting with a complementary color nearby to contrast with it.

Color combinations can also be effective with colors that are similar to each other. In photo 7, three different heath bushes are flowering in pinks and reds. The different hues and intensities of the reds add interest while the similarity of color unifies the area.

We don’t ordinarily recognize white as a color, although technically it is the combination of all colors. White can be quite attention getting, especially when paired with a darker or more saturated color, such as with the purple flowers in photo 8. This illustrates the effect of value contrast, the juxtaposition of a less-saturated (lighter or lower value) color with a more-saturated (darker or higher value) color.

Photo 9 shows how the contrast between light and dark colors is achieved with foliage instead of with flowers. The contrast is made greater by the different textures of the foliage, but the color contrast is the more dominant.

Photo 10 illustrates how more subtle colors, such as the light-blue flowers, can be used in a mass planting, or drift, surrounding a brighter pink area. The less-dominant color is benefited by there being more of it to make the effect more noticeable.

Photo 11 shows two swathes of flowers that share a lot in common: the blue having some pink tones in it and the pink tending toward a bluish undertone. The colors are somewhat subtle and show up better by there being a significant amount of each.


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