Not really. In fact, I know colorblind gardeners—even
colorblind painters—who do very well, so I should not use the term lightly. But
there are some color issues in my garden, and it is probably too late to do
very much about them. I’m clueless about color planning and my garden shows it.

For example, I am unlikely to tear up either the crimson
roses or the magenta clematis that coexist rather jarringly in the only bed
with full sun. There is no place else for them to go, and both are so
established that it seems a shame to disturb them. Had there been planning, a
nice blue-purple or white clematis would have been lovely. Maybe the blue
clematis with yellow foliage (alpina ‘Stolwijk Gold’) would have provided an
interesting contrast.

But who really plans these things? Maybe a designer
presented with a tabula rasa from which to build a garden. Not a gardener who
inherits an established garden, changes a lot of it, keeps some of it, decides
on pink lilies one year, hates pink lilies two years later, decides on a
purple/yellow scheme the next year, but doesn’t want to disturb the established
pink lilies—and so on.

Color combinations often just happen to gardeners who love
plants for themselves more than for the impact they might make, and often buy
on impulse. There are lots of books about color in the garden, but that just adds
to the shame. For most of us, it’s too late for books.


For example, I love the sunset colors of coleus and the iridescent
purple of strobilanthes. Should they be together, as above? Probably not. Then why
are they? I’m not sure, except that I needed plants to fill that container.


And above we have what might pass for a charming unstudied
cottage garden scheme, but nonetheless, doesn’t represent one iota of
forethought about color.

Do I care? Not really, though I daydream about that cool
purple, white and yellow bed that I might have had as I gaze at the yellow and
red combinations I do have. What’s your worst color combination? Can you link
to it? The biggest clash will win a nice book about how to make colors work in
the garden from Timber. Entries close at 9 p.m. EST Wednesday

ADDENDUM: Here are the books I am giving from Timber: Green Flowers (Hoblyn and O’Hara), Plant-Driven Design (Ogden and Springer), and The Book of Blue Flowers (Geneve). Of course, I’ll need links to color clashes, or (relenting) good descriptions. See, I’m too accepting; that’s why I have these clashes.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I am color blind, and I can assure you my garden is one heinous color faux pas – and I could care less. My wife occasionally comments on the most egregious plantings, but she likes the color.

    People should all do what makes them happy even if, like me that can be terrifying to anyone with reasonable color coordination skills. I live in a semi-snooty area (we border on the snoots), and despite my wife’s good breeding and vain attempts to use environment to influence and improve my horticultural behavior, I continue to upset the sensibilities of all.
    Typically, the most barbed comments are reserved for my repetitive misuse of both color and scale in my plantings. I tend to love plants that while individually beautiful (or at least unique), they require growing conditions and thus positioning that bears no relationship to the most tasteful arrangements possible with the plants existing in the area.

  2. I don’t know that I have any photos, or even whether I would recognize a wild color clash in my garden. My garden is put together in exactly the ways you describe. I’m always getting plants that I end up placing where I have a spot, regardless of what surrounds it. The best I seem able to do is not have clashers blooming in the same season. Fortunately there is no great number of snoots in our country town. There are always some but I don’t think they would deign to visit my garden even during the famous Rose Viewing. My Virtual Rose Viewing is up now for others.

  3. That is what containers are for. You can plan color schemes with them and leave the beds for serendipity. Nature doesn’t color coordinate. Saying that, I have to admit I’m not crazy about gold or yellow anywhere near red.

  4. This is so me! The mind-changing, I mean. Except that I am fussy about color. So color is the number one reason I rip plants doing beautifully out of the ground–and give them to the neighbors.

    The front, I figured out years ago–a delightfully brash combination of tomato red and magenta. But the back–I’m still puzzling that one out. This year, I had yellow-pink climbing roses hovering above silvery-pink peonies and a mislabeled orange troillus. A disaster on every level.

  5. If you just add more color, they’ll blend. Add a dark to heighten the contrast, and also a pale to help the clematis pop. And then maybe an elongated green leaf of some sort – get a minimum of five things in there, ’cause even numbers don’t work with plants (at least for me).

  6. Huh, I *like* the orangy-red brick with the crimson and fuschia. There’s enough green and black to balance it out and make a nifty complementary color scheme. Red and green are opposites, and the orange toned and violet toned reds add depth.

    It’s not at all austere and restrained, but I’m not *good* at austere and restrained. And with a red brick house, it’s going to be hard to be austere and restrained anyway. So clearly the right solution is plant more red, pink, fuschia, and “black” flowers. Maybe mix up the foliage some to add more depth to the greens too.

  7. Someone (forgot who) planned a double row of perennials that ran north-south. The side that got morning sun was planted with colors with a blue tone (pinks, magentas, etc.) and the other side with the setting sun got the hot colors. Interesting idea, but I would feel disconcerted with cool colors on one side and hot on the other. So instead, I put the cool colors on the east side of my driveway, and on the west where my vegetable garden is, I put the hot colors, which seem to go well with vegetables (all those red tomatoes).

    As far as pet peeves go, I am very annoyed that lovely peach colored daylilies look so horrible with pink and rose colored plants.

  8. My worst color combination last year were baskets of coral pink tuberous begonias hung in the crabapple trees which clashed with the blue pink impatiens in the bed below. Neither color complimented the other to my eye, though sometimes those colors can look great. Ended up moving the baskets and later giving away the tubers. Cool pinks are a favorite for me.

  9. I don’t know, I kind of think that in the garden, no colors are bad together. Then again, maybe I just haven’t yet seen a really bad combo? I haven’t been at it long enough to see how well or how poorly I am doing color-wise; at this point I place plants according to their needs (light or shade, mainly)and my needs as far as filling space goes. At this point I consider height and maybe texture more than color, but once everything grows in and gets established, I’ll be more fussy about color, too. As an artist (though not one of the colorblind variety), I don’t mind leaving things to chance a little bit and maybe making a happy mistake. They’re all plants, and they’re all lovely. You really can’t go too wrong, right?

    I’m probably still blissfully ignorant.

    OK, how about the purple, orange and black ice pansies I planted ‘neath the red and magenta roses? I guess some people would cringe about that.

  10. I am congenitally color sensitive and simply can’t abide clashing colors. I immediatly yanked out a ‘Little Grapette’ Daylily when I saw that its blooms clashed with those of a nearby Phlox ‘Nicky.’ I haven’t figured out yet what to do about Phlox ‘Laura’ and Lobelia ‘Monet Moment.’ The Phlox is very purple, but blooms well in the shade. The Lobelia is a warm pink, but it is a bloom machine & a plant with stature that pretty much carries the border in July and August. I’m sure it won’t win, but this is as bad as it gets in my garden. I just can’t stand color clashes. Here’s the link:

  11. I am an artist myself. The only garden color faux-pas I have ever seen is a lawn with a few boring round shrubs stuck up against the house because some sad homeowner has better things to do than tend a garden.

  12. Here in zone 10, the color wheel follows the law of the jungle. Some prized plants, like magenta Salvia chiapensis, have flushes of bloom year-round, for which hummingbirds thank me profusely. So when its bloom in early summer coincides with citrus orange crocosmias, so be it. My garden is tiny, and every plant has to have something to offer 12 months of the year in addition to flowers. A good “doer” is included, regardless of color. Tasteful? No. Exciting? Yes!
    (crocosmia, far right, with more magenta, calandrinia this time)

  13. Clash ? You mean my red & yellow Kangaroo Paws shouldn’t be near my purple clematis ? My irises should be arranged for color combinations, not just planted where there’s a blank spot ? Hoo-boy – here I thought green could be my great equalizer ….

  14. My biggest complaint is catalog descriptions that mislead.

    Right now I am pondering what to do with Penstemon ‘Iron Maiden,’ which is a heinous orange-red between a dark blood red Knautia macedonica and a dark pink Weigela. Eccchhh to infinity. All the blues I have around it are either too immature or out of synch to counteract it.

    I could live with the color IF bloom occurred LATE IN THE SEASON the way the catalog promised. As in, “hard to find red for the late summer garden”.

    If I had known that meant “blooms late if you cut off all the flowerbuds in May” rather than “naturally blooms late in the season” I would not have bothered at all.

    As it is, the color and the mistiming are annoying me so much the plants might wind up on the compost pile.

  15. Being a landscape designer, my favorite design is cottage garden. Could be because my yard ends up with all the left over plants that I can’t bear to let go. I am much better at spending other people’s money, thank god!

  16. Could it be time for some Oudolfian advice? Our friend Piet suggests that if a planting scheme follows some basic principles of combining shape and form, colour basically takes care of itself. Mind you, this approach works best when applied with large sweeping brush strokes – mass planting – than it does when everything is combined cheek and jowl. Have a look at the man’s website to see what I mean. Simply brilliant!

  17. Nothing is clashing at the moment to my eyes, perhaps because as soon as I see something clash, I move one of the offending parties. But I suspect there will be trouble later in the summer when the pink oriental lilies are blooming (very late this year) next to the pale yellow ‘sunrise’ coneflowers that I planted last fall.

  18. I prefer to say “contrast” instead of “clash”. As in, “The chartreuse sweet-potato vine contrasts BEAUTIFULLY with the bronze-leaf red begonias in my containers.” Indeed!!

  19. No such thing as a bad color combination. Unusual, maybe. It all depends on what you’re trying to do, from monochrome to confetti.

    That said, here’s one that’s a little on the unusual side.

    It’s from a web feature I developed many years ago on how to use color in the garden. It was a good exercise, because when I was done I felt like I really understood some color theory as it applied to gardens — even if I didn’t practice it very much. It’s here:

    If I recall correctly, one of Piet Oudolf’s principles is to use large sweeps of plants and use plants that have a large plant-to-flower ratio — both of which make it more difficult to make unfortunate color combinations.

  20. No such thing as a bad color combination. Unusual, maybe. It all depends on what you’re trying to do, from monochrome to confetti.

    That said, here’s one that’s a little on the unusual side.

    It’s from a web feature I developed many years ago on how to use color in the garden. It was a good exercise, because when I was done I felt like I really understood some color theory as it applied to gardens — even if I didn’t practice it very much. It’s here:

    If I recall correctly, one of Piet Oudolf’s principles is to use large sweeps of plants and use plants that have a large plant-to-flower ratio — both of which make it more difficult to make unfortunate color combinations.

  21. I’d think that a colorblind person could make the issue an advantage by concentrating on the structure of the garden. I like the attitude in Oudolf’s Designing with Plants, for instances, where color is de-emphasized in relation to form, texture and seasonal interest.

    But back to color…I’m starting to see a lot of dark sage green paint colors appearing on houses. It’s really the opposite of clashing. All the plants seem to vanish against the house color, like they’ve been swallowed up whole. That’s a really unfortunate direction that almost makes you get excited at “clashing” colors.

  22. I waited like a hawk to see that awful orange lily emerge…

    I stepped quickly towards it and in one fell swoop of the trowel, lifted it from the purple,red, pink, and splash of yellow formal perennial garden to its new home on the meadows’ edge. Whew!

  23. I’ve a bit of the opposite problem. Since I’m starting with a blank slate, I am practically terrified to put something in that clashes.

    The result of this is I have very, very few flowers that are not cool pink, white, or lavender, because those were the colors of the three pre-existing plants.

    I am dreading the day my neighbor gives me the divisions of the coreopsis she promised because I do not know how I will blend *yellow* with all that *pink*. And I like coreopsis! But right now the only place I can think to put it is way out by the utility pole.

  24. My former boss accused me more than once of using “garish color combinations” in my slide-shows/talks. Just like in my garden I like jarring combinations that wake up the brain. “Matching” is for the faint of heart.

  25. My color theory is based upon the fact that I love a good challenge. There’s nothing wrong with your combination. You just need to embrace what you don’t like about it (two reds?) and take it over the top! How about some red leaved cannas? Sedums to cool it off (for now), some deep, dark purples and blacks?

    Every year I challenge myself when I plant my two big, high-visibility urns at the top of my driveway. I love to choose a centerpiece plant that I’m not wild about. This year it’s those red-leaved cannas (I’ve always hated cannas!), last year I used bananas, the year before that, pure succulents and before that a tiny chamaecyparis pisifera. Ever since I started doing this, I have loved my containers more than ever!

    My container this year is a canna tropicana –it clashes with itself!– a heuchera caramel, a purple-black sweet potato vine, sedum ‘red carpet’ (I think), ajuga ‘burgundy glow and a hosta ‘Guacamole’.

    It sounds heinous but it’s heavenly!!

  26. Kathy J,

    The comments went on to a 2nd page–you needed to click that to see yours–though the comment function on Typepad is sometimes buggy, I agree. I have no idea how she got that image to show up!

  27. Every season, I have new likes and dislikes regarding color combinations . . . call me fickle – and I’m not alone, dear old Mother Nature seems to be a bit fickle too. Check out this canna that I believe was meant to be yellow with orange spots. On the same stem there are yellow blooms, orange blooms, spotted blooms and one petal that is 2/3s orange and 2/3 yellow. Check it out at


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