Landscape design part 1: Planting for color and contrast

By Todd Merrin and Bruce Gaudette | Feb 22, 2012


Allow us to hazard a guess: Your yard was planted more than 10 years ago, and it is replete with all of the old standard landscape plants for this region: evergreen trees, rhodies, azaleas, junipers, arborvitae and even ivy.

Over the years, we’ve received many calls for garden consultations from new clients who wanted to change their landscape but didn’t know what to plant.

If you are in this situation, this column will help you to understand the design principles of planting for color and contrast, allowing you to expand the color pallet of your landscape and bring year-round color and interest to your home.

Please don’t misunderstand: All of the above plants became standard bearers for good reasons, and they can still be used to good effect. Many evergreen shrubs are low-maintenance, tough, and provide color throughout the year.

The problem is that if these plants are all that you have, then other than 2-4 weeks of flowering in the spring, your yard will only display one color: green. Eleven months of the year: Green.

By planting for contrast you can use these common evergreen plants as a green background to show off a full color spectrum of plants that will revitalize the look of your yard.

Planting for contrast means that you aim to juxtapose lighter colors, darker colors, and different hues against the sturdy backdrop of evergreen that you already have going in your yard!

The medium green of arborvitae and rhodies looks great with plants that have white flowers, cream-colored leaf variegation or lime green foliage.

Use Shasta daisies or birch trees (white), ‘Elegantissia’ dogwoods (cream variegated), or the lime colors of Fuschia mangellica ‘Aurea’, ‘Lime Ricky’ Heuchera, and Yellow creeping Jenny (Lysimanchia prouumbens aurea) in the foreground to create areas of high contrast.

The same principle can be applied using darker colored plants to make your light colored plants look even lighter, and to make any other colors pop!

We love using the dark purple of the tricolor beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Tricolor’) or the Royal Purple Smoke Bush for larger displays of dark foliage that you can mix into the background of your yard.

Use Diablo ninebark ‘Diablo’ (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’) or Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) varieties as mid-ground shrubs with beautiful dark foliage. In the foreground, try Heuchera ‘Obsidian’ or Black Mondo Grass in clumps of three, and Ajuga ‘Repens’ as a groundcover for a punch of contrast.

Finally, now that we have worked to expand the color spectrum to the lightest lights and the darkest darks, with our medium green in the middle, it’s time to fill color spectrum with warm colors!

We love the look of yellow, orange, and red hues against a backdrop of green and dark purple. We recommend using Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or Euonymous fortunei ‘Emerald and Gold’ for a shot of yellow.

Orange is a difficult color to add, but we love the Midwinter Fire Redtwig Dogwood for its orange twigs in winter. For red color in winter, try Nandina domestica ‘Moyers Red’, or the appropriate sized Redtwig Dogwood for your yard, and watch the plants glow with color in the cold!

If you follow the suggestions we’ve made here, you will be sure to improve the beauty and year-round color of your yard by planting for color and contrast.

Bruce Gaudette, owner of Land Hoe! Landscape Design and Construction, holds an Associate Degree in Horticulture from Edmonds CC and industry certifications in paver and permeable paver installation. Todd Merrin, designer for Land Hoe!, holds a degree in Landscape Architecture from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

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