Colouring Your Garden – Part 6; Putting Colour to Work

Greetings loyal readers. It seems I haven’t published a post in more than 5 months – I guess time flies when you’re having fun…………..or when you’re really busy. And a very busy summer it has been, both personally and professionally. Thanks to all who keep visiting here despite the lack of new content.

So to get back to where we were a loooong time ago, let’s continue with our study of colour in the garden. It’s time to take all that technical stuff about Hue, Value & Saturation and put it to work for you.

The interaction between colour and human perception is two-way – colour can influence perception, and perception can influence how we see colour. Today we’ll look at a couple of ways colour can affect perception and how this might be utilized in our gardens.

According to Encarta Dictionary, the psychological definition of perception is “any neurological process of acquiring and mentally interpreting information from the senses.” It is the interpreting of this information that makes colour a useful tool.

Temperature Perception

Looking out my window one morning last week, I saw blue-grey haze. Acrid smoke from distant forest fires filled the air, prompting air quality advisories and recommending folks stay inside. When I did venture outside briefly, I was surprised at how warm it was – the smoky, blue-grey light made it appear much cooler. Later that same day, as increasingly more smoke particles refracted what light could pierce the smoke, a reddish-orange light was cast over everything – I stepped outside again, this time anticipating oppressive heat, but it wasn’t as warm as I’d expected.

Both scenarios came about because my brain incorrectly interpreted the information my eyes had gathered – I expected coolness when the light wavelengths were in a cooler range, and warmth when longer wavelengths prevailed. Indeed we may actually feel cooler in the presence of cool colours, and warmer in the presence of warm colours. Those of you who live in colder climates have no doubt had the experience of looking out the window on a frigid winter day and feeling warmed to the core at the sight of a bright yellow sun.

This phenomenon can be exploited in the garden – perhaps you look out your window on a too-cool spring day and your whole being longs for the warmth of summer. Your eyes look toward your garden and espy drifts of orange tulips, yellow primrose and warm pink azalea – and you feel instantly warm. Or maybe you are sitting in your garden on a smoldering hot summer afternoon and note the swaths of soft mauve Russian sage, cool blue Delphinium and violet-blue globe thistle – how cool it feels.

warm spring colours

Warm hues make cool spring days feel balmy and bright.
– Photos: Pat Gaviller. Bottom – Photos: Sue Gaviller

cool summer colours

Summertime blues provide cool respite from the heat. Photos: Sue Gaviller

On the other hand, maybe you like the coolness of spring and choose to accentuate this with the use of cool springtime hues – bright blue forget-me-nots, lilac-pink rock cress, mauve tulips and rich purple dwarf iris. And for those who like it hot, summer’s heat can be turned up a notch by using plants that bloom warm colours in midsummer – bright golden Rudbeckia, mahogany-red Helenium, warm pink Echinacea, and a sprinkling of hot lime-green foliage. Remember though, that abundant warm colours in the garden still require lots of green – enough to balance and counteract the bright reds, oranges and yellows.

cool spring colours 4 resize

Cool spring colours highlight cool spring weather. Photos: Sue Gaviller

warm summer colours -resize

The heat is on – warm colours sizzle in the summer heat. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Depth/Distance Perception

Visual design often involves a bit of trickery – ways of deceiving the eye to see something that isn’t altogether accurate. For example, in the urban setting many of us reside, yards are often small and disproportionately shaped. The designer’s challenge is to create a sense of spaciousness and pleasing proportion. Understanding the nuances of colour and using it effectively is one way we can achieve this.

If you recall from earlier posts in this series, warm colours appear closer than they really are, as do high value colours and those that are highly saturated. Likewise, cool colours, as well as those of low value and/or low saturation, appear further away. This optical illusion can be used to elongate a short flat space or shorten a long narrow space.

Since all three colour attributes come into play here, it isn’t always possible to predict how the eye will perceive a particular colour. For example, cool colours tend to recede and high value colours appear to advance – so a pastel mauve might do either depending on the colours that surround it. In the image below – one of many Joseph Alber’s paintings paying homage to ‘the square’ – the black central area at first appears to recede. The mauve area however, appears to alternately approach and retreat, thus bringing the black square forward then back.

For any given colour to provide the desired depth illusion, you must consider its context, i.e. its relationship to other nearby colours. A warm hue will appear closer to the viewer when contrasted with a cool hue of equal or lower value and saturation, but further away when contrasted with another warm hue of greater saturation and/or higher value. And although cool colours usually appear to recede, a cool colour that is high value will advance if contrasted with a low value colour of the same hue and equal or less saturation.

squares resize

The central hot pink square appears to advance toward us when set against the cooler, darker and less saturated purple square, whereas it recedes when contrasted with the warmer, lighter and more saturated orange. It also appears to be a different colour – a phenomenon I’ll discuss in my next post. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Lilium ‘Loretto’ and Berberis thunbergii both present very warm colouring. However, the lower value and weaker saturation of the barberry make it appear to recede, in contrast to the higher value and richer saturation of the lily, which appears to ‘pop right out’ at the camera. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

While cool colours often appear to recede from the observer, this cool mauve does the opposite when seen against a darker, less saturated version of the same hue. Note how the high-value, cool coloured tulips in the foreground jump out at us visually and the dark ones retreat further into the background. Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

So how do we use all of this to our benefit in the garden? If the colour of an object causes it to appear further away, placing this colour at the far end of a short flat space might serve to visually elongate the space – additionally, by contrasting this with the use of advancing colours on the side borders, the disproportionate width may appear compressed. Likewise, a long narrow space can be shortened and widened by placing advancing colours at the far end and receding colours on the lateral boundaries. The effect is subtle – colour is by no means the primary cue whereby we perceive depth – but when combined with other forms of ‘forced perspective’, a strong impression of distance or closeness can be implied.

In this well done rectilinear landscape, the designer has created a space that is longer in one direction than the other. Photo: Pat Gaviller

orange daylilies resize

A photoshopped version of the same photo – note the wall of warm, high value, fully saturated orange daylilies appears to advance, thus shortening the space. The junipers, now slightly darker, appear to recede thus widening the space somewhat. Photo: Pat Gaviller. Retouch: Sue Gaviller

long narrow yard reversed resize

Viewing the two images side by side, the effect is more obvious, albeit still subtle.

Do You See What I See?

The perception that some colours advance and others recede, isn’t an experience shared by everyone, particularly the warm vs. cool dichotomy – indeed there are those who don’t experience this phenomenon at all, as well as those who actually see the reverse of what most people see. It can also vary within the same individual, dependent on numerous factors; for example, the effect is much less apparent if the two contrasting colours (warm and cool) are viewed against a very light background. Age too, can dictate how colour affects our perception.

It’s all about the physics of vision. Yawn. Physics – I had the dullest, most boring, uninspiring, high school physics teacher ever. Last period of the day. Double yawn. But I digress. To put it in simplest terms, it has to do with light rays of differing wavelengths and where they refract and converge on our retinas.

Regardless, one thing is certain; colour – with its countless combinations of warm or cool, light or dark, and muted or vibrant – affects us all in subtle ways we aren’t even aware of. In my next post I’ll look at how our perception, in turn, affects the way we see colour.

’Til then,

Fifty Shades of Gray ~ Colouring Your Garden; Part 5

Ha! You thought this post was going be about the tawdry exploits of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey didn’t you? Tsk, tsk, naughty gardeners. Sorry all you lusty ladies, but this post is literally about the (more than) fifty shades of gray…………………..and brown.

Gray and brown; the dull drab colours of a lifeless winter landscape. Haven’t we seen enough of those – do we really need to discuss them on the pages of this usually-colourful blog? Well yes I’m afraid we do – for a number of reasons. While true achromatic grays are rarely seen, if at all, in plant life (more likely gray-green or blue-gray), we do see browns and beiges – in tree bark and branches, seed heads, dying foliage, ornamental grasses and sedges, and even a few flowers.

Garden Grays - aren't really gray; they are very desaturated blues and greens. Clockwise from top left: Elaeagnus angustifolia, Santolina chamaecyparissus, Salix salicola, Artemisia schmidtiana. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Garden Grays – aren’t really gray; they are very desaturated blues and greens. Clockwise from top left: Elaeagnus angustifolia, Santolina chamaecyparissus, Salix salicola, Artemisia schmidtiana. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Garden browns, clockwise from top left: brown container with Heuchera ‘Pinot Gris’ and Carex ‘Toffee Twist’, frosted leaf of Sorbus aucuparia, Phormium tenax ‘Atropurpureum’, Malus sp., Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Ulmus pumila buds. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Grays and browns comprise much of the background colour our gardens are seen against – soil, mulch, concrete, stone, wood etc. Our homes too, are backdrop to the garden and are often finished with siding, stucco or stone in some version of gray or brown. While it may seem outside the purview of a garden designer to comment on house colour, it’s actually an important consideration in the overall appeal of a garden. Case in point – our house was once painted white and contributed enormously to the midday washed-out appearance of my sun-drenched front garden. After painting the house a soft warm cafe-au-lait, the garden appears much richer, and colours hold up far better in full sun.

House colour is of course a very personal choice – my intent here is merely to arm you with a little understanding of browns, beiges and grays to help you make that choice. These colours are what paint companies and fashionistas call ‘neutral’. However, a true neutral is a colour that is entirely without hue – it is achromatic (i.e. white, gray or black). To avoid confusion then, I’ll avoid the use of the word altogether.

Many Shades of Gray

As we learned in my last post, colours that are completely desaturated – those at the centre of Munsell’s Color Space, have no hue content at all. These grays differ from each other only in value. However, many of the colours we call gray actually still contain trace amounts of hue. This is why it’s so difficult to match grays (white or black for that matter too) – if they have even a little hue and the parent hues are different, the eye will perceive this discrepancy.

Munsell's Grays: each of these colour chips if seen on it's own, would appear gray – seen together though it becomes obvious that they aren't true grays. In fact they represent the first step of saturation for 20 hues at 8 different values.

Munsell’s Grays: each of these colour chips if seen on its own, might appear gray – seen together though it becomes obvious that they aren’t true grays. In fact they represent the first step of saturation for 20 hues at 8 different values.

For example, the two grays below aren’t the same – they have the same value but each has enough hue that we can see they are different; different enough that if my husband wore pants in the warmer gray and a shirt in the cooler gray, I would gently advise, ‘Honey those don’t match.’

2 Grays

Both of these grays have a value of 5, but the cool gray on the left has its base in a violet hue whereas the warm gray on the right has a parent hue of orange.

If on the other hand the grays are of the same hue but different values, the eye will intuitively perceive the consistent underlying hue and experience a unified pairing – the difference will be noted but seen as effective contrast rather than awkward clash.

The above grays have the same parent hue – the medium-low value gray on the left and the medium-high on the right are united by this unchanging hue.

The above grays have the same parent hue – the medium-low value gray on the left and the medium-high on the right are united by this unchanging hue.

It’s clear then, that choosing paint colours to accompany that gray vinyl siding on your house, may not be as straightforward as dark gray and lighter gray. If you want contrasting grays, it’s better to maintain a consistent hue and introduce contrast by changing only the value or saturation – otherwise, because the gray has minimal hue content, the eye won’t see colour contrast so much as it will see colour conflict.

Left: Gray siding and gray painted stucco have the same hue hence present a cohesive combination. Right: Gray siding and stucco have different underlying hues thus appear less connected.

Left: Gray siding and gray painted stucco have the same hue hence present a cohesive combination.
Right: Gray siding and stucco have different underlying hues thus appear less connected.

Stone siding, because it has both warm and cool underlying hues, is more forgiving of its accompanying colours – while the warmer gray is still a better match, the cool gray does work.

Stone siding, because it has both warm and cool underlying hues, is more forgiving of its accompanying colours – while the warmer gray is still a better match, the cool gray does work.

This isn’t to say hue contrast shouldn’t be employed when choosing house colours; indeed it is a common design strategy, but it will be more effectively achieved by the addition of a stronger, somewhat more saturated colour – saturated enough that the eye can perceive it as purposeful contrast rather than ‘oops that’s the wrong colour’.

gray siding contrast 2 resample

The rusty-brown of cedar shakes and patio pavers, though not fully saturated, has sufficient colour content to provide effective contrast for the warm gray.

Keep in mind though, that the stronger the colour the more it will impact your choice of garden colour scheme. A weakly saturated beige or gray requires little consideration here, but a coppery brown, as pictured above, has enough hue content that it must be taken into account when deciding on colours for your garden.

The copper-brown shakes present enough colour saturation that the wrong plant choices could look awkward – good plant choices, like the shrubs on the right, pick up on both the stronger copper-brown and the grays. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Some may think me too conservative in my approach to exterior colour, but my comments on the subject are really only as it pertains to grays and browns (since that is the focus of this post). While we all have our own individual tastes, the more we explore and study colour, the better we are able to discern its subtleties and the nuances that contribute to a colour palette we’re happy with – or unhappy with.

Browns, Beiges, Tans and Taupes

Warm grays with a little more hue content, are browns and beiges, the parent hues being red, orange, yellow and sometimes green-yellow or red-violet. Despite their slightly increased saturation, it can still be difficult to discern an underlying hue – choosing the appropriate brown or beige can thus be a challenge. And because they have a bit more colour content, they are also affected more by light conditions. The first day after painting our house that attractive cafe-au-lait colour (the actual name I believe was Beige-Gray), I returned home just before dusk as the last rays of sun were dispersing. To my dismay, as I turned the corner and caught a glimpse of our newly painted house I saw pink – blech!

“OMG what have we done?” I thought, then resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to tell hubby to repaint (like that was going to happen). The next day however, it didn’t look so bad – in fact it was exactly how I’d envisioned it when we chose the colour. Relieved, I assumed the paint must’ve just needed to ‘cure’ before presenting its real colour. Of course I know now that the more likely explanation had to do with the colour of the ambient light – evening and early morning light is pink or reddish compared to other times of day when it may be more yellow, white or blue.

So how do we choose the right brown or beige? As with grays, maintaining a consistent hue is still the safest choice and therefore my best advice. Easier said than done; since the hues that underlie these colours may not be immediately discernible.

Let’s look at a few examples. Below are three different browns, each with a different parent hue – can you determine what the underlying hues are? Click on each one for the answer.

Small wonder that there are so many mismatched browns, beiges, tans and taupes – especially in older neighbourhoods where the original exterior colours have long since been covered by the respective paint choices of successive homeowners. A better understanding of why these mismatches occur will help you avoid making the same mistakes. The images below represent 2 different scenarios for house colours and materials. Which one do you think produces a more unified picture? Why?

brown house x 2

The answer is of course the colour combination on the right in which all colours have the same parent hue. In the image on the left the colours are based in several different hues which results in disunity.

All colours and materials are based in the same orange-yellow hue – Munsell’s 10YR.

And what about the garden – need we consider the undertones in the beige or brown colour of our home to make colour choices for the garden? As I mentioned previously, the stronger the colour of one’s house, the more it will factor into the garden colour scheme. However, with weakly saturated browns and beiges, you don’t really need to – they have such low hue content that you can get away with pretty much any colour scheme. But you certainly could – by bringing the same underlying hue from the house into the garden, a deep yet subtle sense of unity is achieved, though the untrained eye may not recognize it, only intuit it.

Since the underlying hue of the house colour(s) is a yellowish-orange, including this hue in the garden colour scheme provides subtle unity. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Paint companies don’t always make it easy for us find the right hue – while some organize their paint swatches into strips of 4 or 5 colours in the same hue family, others mix several similar hues within the same strip, leaving you guessing. And even those that use single hue strips, only a small sample of the possible colours within that hue are included. For these reasons I find the hue pages in the Munsell Book of Color to be a most helpful tool – but at $1000.00+ for the book, the cost is prohibitive for most.

Feeling a little frustrated now because ‘Hey how the heck am I supposed to figure all this out without those expensive Munsell colour charts at my disposal?’ Well here’s something for you………

Cool Tools (Yup there’s an App for that)

Since most of us don’t have 1000.00 dollars to spend on Munsell’s Book of Color, but we’d still like the benefit of comprehensive hue charts, check these out:

David Briggs’ Dimensions of Colour: Hue, Value and Chroma – scroll down to the third image, Figure 1.1.3. (wait a few seconds for it to load). Click on the thumbnail of any hue page and it will enlarge. All 40 Munsell hue pages are accessible for your viewing and reference.

Classical Lab has developed a Munsell App for iPad and iPhone called MunsellDG.  Note: the hue pages differ from the actual Munsell Book of Color due to copyright, but for the purposes of the average gardener or garden designer this is more than enough to help you determine ‘what hue is this?’, ‘what goes with this?’, etc. – and you can take it with you wherever you go.

Munsell Color Studies and Art – an interactive website with exercises to test and hone your colour skills.

Grays and browns may seem lifeless, especially when spring is so close and an explosion of colour is just around the corner, but understanding these understated colours and learning to see what lies beneath them is one more step towards ‘colouring your garden’ with confidence.

It takes practice to see colour in this new way – and I’m not done yet……….

’Til next time,

Colouring Your Garden – Part 4; Saturated Solutions

A week or so ago, while out for a walk with my sister in her inner-city neighbourhood, I heard the familiar sound of Robin chirps. It took me a minute to realize that the sound was out of place on this mid-February afternoon. Indeed my sister doubted me initially, but then she heard it too. “Holy $#!+.” she said.  According to local bird experts a few robins do spend the winter here, but neither of us had ever seen one this early in the year.

Several blocks later I happened to look up and espied what appeared to be pussy willows. At first I thought it might be water droplets on the branches reflecting the late day sun – but then I reached up and felt the fat fuzzy protuberances. Yep, those are pussy willows. While there are many species of willow that produce the downy catkins, a few as early as February,  Salix discolor, the true North American pussy willow doesn’t usually bloom here until mid March – this was February 12th! I didn’t know whether to be elated or alarmed. Either spring is coming really early or the birds and the trees are in for a cold, snowy, nasty surprise in the weeks to come – despite a mild winter from a moderate El Nino effect, this is still zone 3 Calgary and the early bird rarely gets the worm. Only time will tell I guess, but my vote is for an early spring. In the meantime fellow gardeners, we have more to learn about colour…………

Over the last few months I’ve been discussing colour theory as it relates to garden design. We’ve looked at two of the three attributes of colour (Hue and Value) and today we’ll examine the third; Saturation, or what Munsell called Chroma.

Saturation is the strength or concentration of a colour and is determined by how much of a particular hue is present in that colour. Think high school science for a moment and consider the amount of solute in a solution – in the scientific sense, saturation occurs when a liquid has reached its capacity to absorb a dissolved substance. Brine for example, is a solution of water and salt – if we start with pure water, then add salt until the water can’t absorb any more, we have a saturated solution. Similarly with colour, if we start with gray then add a particular hue until maximum hue content (i.e the pure hue) is reached, then we have full colour saturation.

High Saturation

A highly saturated colour reflects a great deal of light from one specific part of the spectrum, and very little light from anywhere else on the spectrum; for example, the pure hue of red reflects most light from the end of the visible spectrum where red is located, and yellow reflects most light from near the middle of the spectrum.

The pure hues (i.e. Munsell’s 10 basic hues around the outer edge of the Munsell Colour Space, or the 12 hues on the Artist’s Colour Wheel) are considered fully saturated. These are the vibrant colours some gardeners adore and others abhor; they are intense and flamboyant, and employed effectively are stunning additions to a garden composition. Used indiscriminately however, they’re sure to create garden chaos.

Photos and Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Full saturation. Photos and Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Saturated hues hold up well under full sun with very little colour washout, and like warm hues and high value colours, appear closer than they really are. They are thus highly conspicuous in the landscape, perfect for creating emphasis or accenting an area you want to draw attention to; an approach or a destination.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Planting bright saturated colours in entryway container arrangements as this gardener has done, effectively draws the eye to the front entrance, creating a welcoming focal point. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Public gardens and parks often use abundant saturated colours in their annual display gardens – while this style of planting design isn’t one I’m likely to adopt, the plethora of intense colour certainly does what it’s intended to do; attract attention.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Massed annuals in strong spicy hues draw the eye directly to the Tea House, advertising its presence and inviting visitors in. Note how the saturated reds and yellows hold their colour without fading in the bright sunlight. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Fullest saturation is experienced when hues are used individually rather than together – if two highly saturated colours are in close proximity to each other, the effect will be to decrease the intensity of both. This isn’t to say you should never use more than one saturated colour in a composition – you certainly can – but any given colour will be seen at its purist if there aren’t other equally intense, and therefore competing, colours close by (remember the design principle Unity by Dominance). The exception to this is complementary hues, which will both be intensified by their nearness to one another.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Lime green Hosta, violet-red Paeonia, golden Hemerocallis and yellow Sedum all present very saturated colour – while it’s an attractive composition, the strong colours do compete somewhat meaning none of them can take centre stage. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Photo: Pat Gaviller

The same photo, now cropped to isolate the peony from the other intense colours, illustrates how a saturated colour on its own has stronger colour presentation than numerous competing colours together. Photo: Pat Gaviller

The eye perceives large areas of colour as more saturated than smaller areas; hence fine textured plants (small leaves and/or flowers) don’t appear as saturated as those with coarse texture (large leaves and/or flowers). This is particularly apparent when seen from a distance, so fullest possible saturation will only be experienced up close – distance tends to mute or desaturate colour. I learned this quite by accident in my own garden in my pre-designer years. I’d wanted a hefty shot of hot pink in a particular spot in the garden and chose Anthony Waterer spirea for its long-blooming bright fuchsia flowers. I thought I was happy with the choice, since it was just the right colour and bloomed continuously. However, I soon realized that unless I was right up at the edge of the garden, the fine-textured umbels of hot pink blooms looked dull an unimpressive, if seen at all. Needless to say I removed it – at some point I figured out that I needed a bigger, bolder flower to anchor the spot. I have since planted Purple Pavement rose, its large velvety, red-violet blooms showing strong colour even from far away.

Viewed from very close, coarse-textured Iris and fine-textured Salvia both present saturated Blue-Violet colouring. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Viewed from very close, coarse-textured Iris and fine-textured Salvia both present saturated Blue-Violet colouring. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Viewed from a few feet away, the big bold Iris blooms maintain almost full colour content and still appear richly-hued, whereas the finer-textured Salvia flowers appear somewhat desaturated. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Viewed from a few feet away, the big bold Iris blooms maintain almost-full colour content and still appear richly-hued, whereas the finer-textured Salvia flowers appear somewhat desaturated. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Low Saturation

Colours become less and less saturated the closer they are to the central neutral axis of Munsell’s Colour Space. The neutrals have no hue content whatsoever – they are the achromatic colours of white, black and numerous shades of gray in between. Colours that have some hue content but are relatively low in saturation, have a dull or muted appearance compared to their more highly saturated counterparts; hence they attract much less attention. We see this in some foliage, especially evergreen foliage, ornamental grasses, fading flowers and seed heads.

Low saturation plants 2

Low or weak saturation. Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

These muted colours are a nice foil or contrast to brighter flowers and foliage, affording the appearance of fuller saturation to neighbouring plants, even those that may be less than fully saturated.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Spent flowers of purple smoke bush appear like billowy wisps of copper-rose smoke. The colour is actually a red of only medium saturation, but looks more intensely coloured next to the much less saturated inflorescence of the ornamental grasses. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The muted blue-green of weeping blue cedar provides a soft backdrop allowing rich crimson barberry to really stand out. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Colours that have low or weak saturation appear to recede from the viewer thus seem farther away than they actually are. As mentioned earlier in this post, distance desaturates colour, as does bright sun and fine texture – any of these scenarios will lead to further desaturation of already dullish colours.

fescue sun

fescue shadeLeft: Fine-textured Festuca glauca (foreground) appears almost colourless under the glare of mid day sun. Right: the same blue fescue grasses, now in shade, display much higher colour content. Photos: Pat Gaviller

Unlike highly saturated colours, less saturated colours allow for the use of many hues within the same composition – without the garish results.

muted colours 4

Muted hues of red, orange, yellow, green, and red-violet are present in this composition but due to their low colour content, don’t overwhelm. Note that the one very saturated colour, the yellow-green cypress in the centre of the photo, is more prominent than any other colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

 Saturation Contrast

Contrasting saturation levels of a single hue creates subtle unity as the eye recognizes the underlying hue and connects the elements.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Terra cotta is a weakly saturated (and higher value) red-orange and provides elegant contrast to the highly saturated red-orange of the begonia. Photo: Sue Gaviller

You may recall from my last post that the pure hues don’t have equal native values – neither do they have equal hue content or saturation. The pure hue of Red for example has the highest degree of saturation, twice that of the lowest, which is Blue-Green. This means there are twice as many steps from neutral to pure red, than there are from neutral to pure Blue-Green.

An image from Munsell's Atlas of Color showing the scale of Chromas (Saturation) for Red and Blue-Green.

An image from Munsell’s Atlas of Color showing the scale of Chromas (Saturation) for Red and Blue-Green. Note that from the central neutral (gray) axis, there are 10 steps outward to fully saturated Red, and only 5 steps to fully saturated Blue-Green

When combining these colours, in order  to achieve a balanced composition, you’ll need at least twice as much Blue-Green as Red. Alternatively you could use a Red that is less saturated so it approximates the saturation of the Blue-Green.

Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

One way to balance Red and Blue-Green is to use a less saturated Red that is closer to the more weakly saturated Blue-Green. Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

Of course gardeners can’t be expected to know or remember the precise chroma or saturation of any given hue – but with a little colour knowledge we can be confident that if a colour seems very strong or intense, it probably is, and we can use it accordingly (i.e. sparingly). Likewise if a colour appears to be more subtle or muted, we can be pretty sure that it is less saturated and we can use a little more of it to balance out the more saturated colours.

Maintaining colour balance in the garden is another reason for using plenty of – you guessed it: green. And I don’t mean yellow-green, blue-green, gray-green or variegated green; I mean the basic hue of green – think lilac foliage or kinnickinnick, daylily, Russian cypress, peony or pine. These foliage greens have medium value and medium saturation – which means they can balance and bring together the stronger and weaker colours. Are you starting to get the picture now?

Foliage examples of basic green. Clockwise from top: common lilac, kinnickinnick, daylily, Russian cypress, Itoh peony and dwarf mugo pine. Photos: Sue Gaviller

The basic hue of green has medium value and medium saturation. Clockwise from top: common lilac, kinnickinnick, daylily, Russian cypress, Itoh peony and dwarf mugo pine. Photos: Sue Gaviller

During the long months of winter, weak desaturated colours abound (dead grass, naked bark, dull evergreen foliage, mud, gravel, etc.), especially evident in mild winters when there is no snow to brighten the landscape – we long for the full, rich colours of spring and summer. My friends I think it’s not far off – I’m anticipating a very early spring.

However, despite the robins and willows fuelling my hopes, a good friend and client has cautioned me, “Don’t you dare, dare to hope for such an early spring – February is WAYYYYY too early………..!” she jokingly admonished.

Hey girl, don’t rain on my parade.

’Til next time,

Colouring Your Garden – Part 3; Value Added

“Nowhere in nature can you find purer color than sunlight passing through the petal of a flower.”     ~ Larry K. Stephenson, Artist ~

Sunlit petals – the imagery evokes such warmth. Indeed there would be no flower petals without sunlight – plants require light to bloom, and light gives the flower (or any object) its colour.  In my last post I discussed the attribute of Hue which results from the particular wavelength of that light. In this post I’ll look at Value, which results from the amount of light reflected back from an object.

In simpler terms, Value is how light or dark a colour is. If you recall from Part 1 of this series, the value scale is located along the central vertical axis of the Munsell 3D Colour Space. Black is at the bottom of the scale and since it reflects no light, has a value of zero. White, located at the top of the value scale, has the highest value (10) because it reflects the most light – so the darker the colour, the lower the value. Here we start to see colour relationships within a single hue. For instance, maroon, red and pink are all the same hue but at different values, and mauve is the same hue as purple but at a higher value.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus cistena and Potentilla  ‘Pink Beauty’ displaying light, medium and dark values of the same hue. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Munsell value scale resample

An image from Munsell’s Colour Atlas depicting the basic hues at values from 2 through 8.

High Value Colours

Colours that have high value, pastels for example, are highly visible because they reflect so much light. Like warm hues, they appear to advance towards the observer, thus seem closer than they really are. For these reasons, plants with pastel colouring provide real ‘pop’ in the garden. And of course for these same reasons, overuse of light bright colours can fatigue the eye.

Graphics and photos: Sue Gaviller

High Value Colours. Graphics and photos: Sue Gaviller

High value colours are especially noticeable in shady locations, at twilight, or against a dark background. On the contrary, these colours get washed out in strong midday sun or near highly reflective surfaces such as concrete or light coloured stone.

Left: High value colours, like the pastel mauve of these Campanula, appear washed out under strong sun. Right: These same plants seem to glow in the fading light of dusk. Photos: Cathy Gaviller.

Left: High value colours, like the pastel mauve of Campanula, appear washed out under strong sun. Right: These same plants seem to glow in the fading light of dusk. Photos: Cathy Gaviller.

This washout effect can be minimized with the abundant use of dark green – its lower value helps to absorb reflected light. In fact pastel-coloured plants are at their best when seen against a backdrop of lush green foliage.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Panicles of pastel mauve Syringa blossoms are a real standout against dark evergreen foliage.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

pastel rose - resample 2

Soft lemon-peach blooms of Rosa ‘Morden Sunrise’ are a striking contrast to the rich green surrounding foliage. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Variegated foliage. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Plants that contain two colours of contrasting value, variegated green and white foliage for example, will appear pastel-coloured when seen from a distance – particularly if the variegations are small. This is called assimilation – the eye optically mixes the colours, averaging the high value of the white and the lower value of the green to make a lighter green. The smaller the variegation the more evident is this effect. In the photo on the right, assimilation is most apparent with the Lamiastrum in the centre – the variegation is barely evident and the leaves appear silvery pastel green. The Hosta in the foreground exhibits no assimilation at all and the Euonymus in the background, only slightly.

Low Value Colours

Low value colours reflect less light than their high value counterparts so are less visible in the landscape, especially in shade, at dusk, or against a dark background.

Low Value Colours. Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

Low Value Colours. Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

When viewed from a distance, dark-coloured garden elements lose their visual impact and recede into the background, an effect that is compounded by the optical illusion of appearing further away than they actually are. While low value foliage plants (especially dark green) make good garden backdrop, any dark feature you want to draw attention to is best situated close to the viewer, where the deep opulent colour can be appreciated.

barberry hedgebarberry hedge 2

Left: The low value red of this barberry hedge is rich and vibrant up close. Right: When viewed from further away the dark colour has a subtler effect, becoming part of the background. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Dark-coloured plants look exceptional against light-coloured stone, concrete, stucco, etc. and because they absorb light reflected from these surfaces, they also help to reduce glare and the washout effect of midday sun.

purple verbena resample

Low value colour from dark green hedging and dark purple Verbena, provides a good foil for the higher value of the tile-stone promenade. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Since dark colours make good background plantings, and because they don’t draw a lot of attention, they can be used  generously in the landscape. But don’t overdo it – too much low value without some medium and higher value to punctuate, will result in a garden composition that feels heavy and sombre.

Natural Value of Hues

Natural Value of HuesIt’s important to note that the basic hues in their pure state don’t have equal values. If I were to pose the question, “Which of the spectral hues has the highest inherent or native value?” you wouldn’t have to think long before responding. You’d answer yellow right? It is obviously the lightest hue on the spectrum. Likewise you would probably intuit that the hue with the lowest natural value is violet or purple.

This ranking of hues by value is of particular significance as it relates to colour balance. For example, if you want to use the conventional opposites of violet and yellow you can’t use them in equal proportion – their disparate values will create too much visual tension.

I experienced this in my own garden years ago – in my infinite gardener’s wisdom I’d decided I wanted a colour scheme consisting of only purples/violets and yellows. And in my ultimate gardener’s naiveté, I planted an alternating border of pure yellow marigolds and dark purple Lobelia (yes, yes I can hear your snickers and snorts at the mention of such amateur plant choices). It didn’t take long for me to realize how very grating this composition was, although I didn’t know why – I would later learn it takes three or four units of low Value to balance one unit of high Value, and this 3 or 4 to 1 ratio should be applied to violet and yellow.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Bright yellow Osteospermum and dark violet Petunia appear quite jarring when present in equal quantity. Photo: Pat Gaviller


The same pairing, now seen in more balanced proportions with 3 or 4 parts low value to one part high value. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Another way to balance these two hues, and maybe a better way, would be to use darker yellow and lighter violet elements, which lessens the disparity between the two values. They can then be present in more or less equal proportions without the visual discomfort.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Violet and yellow can be present in equal quantities by using a higher value violet, and lower value yellow, as in this container arrangement of mauve Petunia and dark golden Calendula at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ont. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Contrasting Values

Value contrast in the garden results from both the strength & direction of sunlight, and from the pigments present in the plants. The sun shining on our gardens creates shadows and highlights that we take very much for granted – we don’t always notice the resultant areas of perceived lighter or darker colour. In fact it is this contrast of light and dark that defines an object in space and enables us to discriminate between like-coloured entities. It’s what allows us to see edges and depth, therefore texture. No one knows this better than the painter – he knows if he is painting a red flower that it involves many variations on red. He adds a little black here, some white there, or grey, thus bringing his 2D image alive. The photographer too, recognizes this – she adjusts her camera settings to compensate for natural lighting that may be less than ideal (well she knows she should, regardless of how finicky and annoying it is). In this way harsh contrast between light and dark can be minimized in her finished product.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Paeonia ‘Unknown Soldier’ – note how many different values of the hue of red are seen in the shadows, midtones and highlights. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Using contrasting values of a single hue in a planting composition creates dramatic effect in the garden; indeed nature often does this within a single plant………

peach iris-resamplebicolour iris

Left: soft orange-peach standards and falls are set off by a darker orange beard. Photo: Sue Gaviller Right: velvety purple falls contrast nicely with softer mauve standards. Photo: Pat Gaviller. 

And the gardener does it within a planting scheme or vignette…………

purple bicolor daylily and rose glow barberry 2

Value contrast within a planting composition – here I’ve paired cool-pink daylilies with dark plum-red barberry. Each plant contains value contrast as well – the daylily has a plum-red eyezone and the barberry has cool-pink variegations. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Cathy Gaviller

Dwarf Iris and creeping thyme – beautiful value contrast of red-purple hue. Photo: Cathy Gaviller

Lovely though these colour combos are, as with almost everything in the garden (and in life), too much of a good thing is…………..well, too much. Imagine how unpleasant it would be to look at a garden filled with high contrast plant combinations. While value contrast helps us discriminate between the various elements in a planting scheme, it doesn’t always have to be dramatic.

And don’t forget balance when contrasting values – use more low value than high value (remember that ratio of 3:1 or 4:1). And green; use lots of it (have I said that before?) low value green, as well as basic green, which has medium value and helps to balance the higher and lower values.

In the words of Spanish Poet and Playwright, Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.

On that note fellow gardeners, I will conclude today’s lesson – hope you’ve learned something of value.

’Til next time,

Colouring Your Garden, Part 2 – Hue’s the Thing


Happy New Year y’all!

If you overindulged in last night’s new year’s celebrations and are currently paying the price, you might want to leave this post for another day – it contains lots of words and numbers and bright colours; perhaps more than your pickled brain can take in at the moment. Go nurse your hangover and come back later. For those of you who were better behaved last night, read on…….

In my last post I presented an overview of Munsell’s Colour Classification System – I know it seems an overly complex approach to colour, especially as it relates to garden design, but understanding the concepts of Hue, Value and Chroma is key to effective use of colour in the garden.

Munsell’s three-attribute system is the basis for numerous colour models; for example, the Royal Horticultural Society uses a similar numeric system, employing the terms Hue, Brightness (Munsell’s Value) and Saturation (Munsell’s Chroma). Other models use such terms as Hue/Luminance/Saturation, Hue/Lightness/Saturation or Hue/Value/Saturation. In this post and in general, I use the latter; Hue, Value and Saturation – but in a Munsell framework. A purist might say I’m mixing modalities, arguing that chroma and saturation are not quite the same, but for our purposes they are close enough (I am simplifying things considerably). Today then, I’ll take a closer look at Hue.

Technically speaking, Hue refers to position on the spectrum. That ‘regular Joe’ I spoke of in my last post, was actually defining the attribute of hue – it is the response of colour receptors in our eyes (cones) to light absorbed by and reflected back from an object. The frequency and wavelength of that light determines its colour, red being the longest wavelength and violet the shortest.

Visible spectrum of light – violet light has the shortest wavelength and red the longest. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Visible spectrum of light – violet light has the shortest wavelength and red the longest.
Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Hue is also the attribute that provides the emotional impact – red is passionate; the colour of anger or cupid’s arrow, yellow is happy and optimistic. It should be noted here that the human response to a particular hue isn’t universal – it’s determined largely by our culture, and by personal experience. The colour red in China symbolizes good luck and prosperity, in India it means purity, and in Hebrew tradition it represents sacrifice and sin. Blue may feel cool and calm to most, but if an individual experienced something traumatic in a room painted blue, that colour may forever trigger negative emotions. Case in point; many people experience bright yellow as a cheerful colour – I find it nauseating. When I was in my mid twenties I took up knitting (for whatever reason knitting had become a fad among young women at the time). I’d been working on a bright yellow mohair sweater (what can I say, it was the eighties and we all wore big hair, big shoulders and big colour). I stayed up late one night trying to finish this furry fright, and after hours of focusing on the gaudy garment, I went to sleep still visualizing bright yellow – indeed the colour permeated my dreams. I awoke several hours later feeling quite nauseous (apparently I’d come down with a nasty gastrointestinal bug). As I drifted in and out of near-delirious, nausea-interrupted sleep, I was still dreaming yellow. Once an association is made between a visual stimuli (or any stimuli) and an emotional or physical response, it may be with us for a lifetime. To this day bright yellow can still make me queasy.

butchart gardens red bridge 2

The colour red has great significance in Japanese culture, symbolizing among other things, that which is sacred – hence the red bridge or ‘Guzei’ in the Japanese Garden represents the path to salvation or redemption. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Primary Hues

Perhaps you’ve heard conflicting information as to which hues are the primaries – are they red, green and blue? Cyan, magenta and yellow? Red, yellow and blue? The correct answer is……….all of them – it just depends which model you’re considering. The additive colour system, or RGB (red, green, blue) model, refers to the combining of red, green and blue light to produce a broad range of perceived colours – your computer monitor, television screen, and that awesome light show accompanying your favourite rock band in concert, utilize this model.  The subtractive model, or CMYK is used in ink colorant systems, your inkjet printer for example – cyan, magenta and yellow are the primaries in this model.

The RYB (red, yellow, blue) model was the original subtractive model, predating colour science – it was replaced by CMYK since it is believed that more colours can be produced using the primaries of cyan, magenta and yellow than with red, yellow and blue. Nonetheless, RYB is still used by artists, especially painters. It is also an effective illustrative model which I too utilize and will discuss later in this post.

So what does all this have to with us? As gardeners, we manipulate neither light for digital media application, nor pigment for printing or painting. However, we do manipulate plants, the colour of which comes from pigments, and the light that shines on them – an understanding of the applicable colour models is therefore beneficial.

To complicate things further, the human eye blends colours differently again, in a phenomenon called optical mixing. Ever have the experience of trying to match a print fabric skirt or shirt with a solid colour blouse or tie? You may have perfectly matched one of the colours in the print, but when you view the pairing from a few feet away, the colours appear to clash. The eye has blended together the various colours in the print to make an entirely different colour – this optical mixing is especially evident with small patterns, less so with larger blocks of colour. As we continue our exploration of colour properties, you will see that this comes into play often in the garden.

mixing models

Left: Additive mixing – primaries are Red, Green and Blue. Middle: Subtractive mixing – primaries are Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. Note that the secondary colours of one system are the primaries of the other. Right: Optical Mixing – Colour mixing according to the human eye. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Munsell’s aim was to develop an approach to colour that approximated the way the eye perceives it. Like his predecessors, beginning with Isaac Newton, he conceptualized the visible spectrum of light as a circle of hues. This was of much more use to artists and designers than the linear spectrum – by placing red next to violet it allowed for red-violet combinations and also provided a better tool for visualizing colour relationships, e.g. opposites or complements.

The Basic Hues

Munsell organized hues into a circle of five major hues (Red, Yellow, Green, Blue and Purple) and five minor hues (Yellow-Red, Green-Yellow, Blue-Green, Purple-Blue and Red-Purple). Together these comprise the Basic Hues and these basic hues are the colours which are most pure or saturated.

Graphics and Photos: Sue Gaviller

Graphics and Photos: Sue Gaviller

Intermediate Hues

The transition from one hue to another is a gradual one with many hues in between, so the spaces between the basic hues he divided further, allowing for intermediate hues. All the basic hues begin with 5, 5R being the basic hue of red, 5YR is yellow-red, 5Y is yellow etc. The intermediate hues all begin with 10 – 10R, 10YR, 10Y and so on around the circle.

Munsell Wheel resampleConsider the hues between 10RP and 10R; all are designated R – 2.5R is nearer to Red-Purple so will contain more of that hue, 5R is basic or pure red,  7.5R and 10R will contain increasing amounts of Yellow-Red (orange).

Numbers then begin at 2.5 again – 2.5YR has more red in it, 5YR is the basic hue of Yellow-Red and the hues 7.5YR and 10YR become increasingly more Yellow.

Munsell’s Basic and Intermediate hues. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Each of these 40 numerically designated hues, has a corresponding page in the Munsell Book of Color. Each hue is a ‘family’ of colours with numerous value and chroma variations making up the page – below are some examples. Note that as the hues progress from one to another, the changes are subtle but still evident.

R & YR

Eight different hue pages as they might appear in the Munsell book of colour. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

The Artist’s Wheel

Okay enough of all this technical stuff – let’s look at the more familiar Standard Artist’s Wheel, the RYB model we all learned in grade school. It differs from Munsell’s hue circle in a number of ways; instead of five major hues and five minor hues, there are three primary colours (Red, Yellow and Blue), three secondary colours (orange, green and violet), and six tertiary colours (red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet).

Artist's Colour Wheel. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Artist’s Wheel. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Munsell Hue Circle. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Munsell Hue Circle. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

As well, some of the colours are named differently; violet instead of purple, orange instead of yellow-red, yellow-green instead of green-yellow etc.. More significantly, Munsell’s circle contains ten basic hues whereas the Artist’s wheel has 12. This means that the complementary pairs will differ as well – red & green vs. red & blue-green, red-violet & yellow-green vs. red-purple & green. The only exception is blue and orange (Munsell’s Yellow-Red) which are the same on both wheels. Munsell used the term opposite rather than complementary and he believed that in order for two colours to be truly opposite, they had to completely neutralize each other when mixed together, hence producing grey. This was how he arrived at the ten basic hues.

So which of these circular representations of hues is most useful to us? Well either……..or both – some would argue that Munsell’s opposites are less jarring when used together than the traditional complements. The Artists wheel, on the other hand, works out colour schemes better because 12 colours can be divided more ways than 10.  I use both, but always with Munsell’s basic premises in mind.

Contrasting Hues

Pairing hues that are distant from each other on the colour wheel (e.g. opposites or complements) creates high contrast. These dynamic colour combinations really draw the eye, thus overuse can cause visual fatigue or appear garish.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

This vignette from an area in my front garden demonstrates the highly contrasting hue combination of red-violet and yellow-green. A lovely combo, but too much of such intense contrast could easily overwhelm a composition. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Hues that are close to or beside each other on the colour wheel result in low contrast when used together. This causes less visual tension and is therefore more restful.

Blues and purples are near to each other on the colour wheel resulting in a lower contrast composition that is visually softer than high contrast scenarios. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Blues and purples are near to each other on the colour wheel resulting in a low contrast composition that is visually softer than high contrast scenarios. Photo: Jane Reksten

Of course too little contrast can also end up creating monotony, so be sure to use some areas of high contrast and some areas of lower contrast. I also recommend that you limit the number of hues in your design. This is less constricting than you may think – remember each hue has a whole family of colours associated with it, with varying value and saturation levels, meaning many different but related colours

Warm Hues

warm hues 2

Warm hues. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Hues are described as either warm or cool – warm hues are those on the right side of the spectrum and cool hues are those on the left. Red-violet, though it doesn’t exist on the spectrum, can be considered warm or cool because it has both red and violet in it.

Warm hues are lively and vibrant and create the optical illusion of advancing toward the viewer, which means they appear closer than they actually are. For these reasons they are real attention-grabbers, especially at full saturation – gardeners make the mistake of overusing these eye-catching hues thereby overpowering all other aspects of the garden. Warm is dominant and little is needed to make a powerful statement.

Warm colours like red and yellow require on;y a few splashes to be seen and appreciated. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Kendall Jackson winery, Sonoma County CA. Splashes of warm reds and yellows are all that’s needed to provide sufficient visual punch without overshadowing other important elements of the design: line, form and texture. Photo: Sue Gaviller.

Cool Hues

cool hues

Cool hues. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Cool hues are subtle and restrained, therefore won’t overwhelm a garden design. Optically they recede from the observer, appearing further away – best to situate them up close where they are most visible.

As I mentioned earlier, there may be personal and cultural associations that come into play regarding our emotional response to various colours, but there is in fact a physiological reason for our ocular response. The eye focuses on distant objects in much the same way it focuses on green or blue, and on near objects much the same way as on red. Since the eye is more at rest when viewing objects in the distance, it perceives cool blues and greens as more restful.


Photo: Sue Gaviller

A peaceful composition of cool greens, blue-green, blue, and soft violet in an Oregon shade garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

When contrasting warm and cool hues, cool should outweigh warm by at least three to one. If you follow the rule of thumb that green should be the predominant hue in your garden, this ratio will be easy to satisfy. Unfortunately, in our attempt to create season long colour, we include too many brightly coloured foliage plants, sometimes to the near-exclusion of green. Fellow gardeners please remember, green is good. Green is to the gardener as a canvas to the artist – it is the backdrop against which all other hues are set.

warm hues garden resamplewarm hues + green resample

The image on the left contains too many warm colours without enough green. The image on the right has been been photoshopped to illustrate the balancing effect of green. Photo: Sue Gaviller


Well my friends you are one step closer to painting your garden masterpiece, but there’s still more to learn – next post I’ll explore the colour attribute of Value.

’Til then,


Colouring Your Garden

It’s baaaaaack – the white stuff that is.

Earlier this year I began a discussion on garden colour with a post entitled: Colour – the Absence of White. The title was a play on words of sorts – both a twist on the artist’s definition of white (the absence of colour) and the fact that the snow, that dreaded white stuff, was finally gone, revealing the colours of spring. I had hoped to follow up with a series of posts on colour, but was so busy over the summer trying to get caught up with my design work, that it just never happened. Now the snow has returned, our northern gardens are all tucked in for their long winter’s nap, and I have a little time on my hands. It seems appropriate then, that I pick up where I left off back in May. In that introductory post, I presented and discussed the challenges and complexities of colouring our gardens – a finite colour palette, variable bloom times, harsh sunlight, existing colours in the surrounding landscape, the life cycle of a plant or garden – to name a few.

So how do we as gardeners, mitigate and manage these inevitabilities?  To begin with we might ask ourselves, ‘What is colour?’ I thought it would be interesting to see how a ‘regular Joe’ might answer this question – so I asked my sons (one of whom happens to be named Joe, but nothing regular about him). “The frequency of the light waves bouncing off an object,” he replied – not bad, but it only describes one aspect of colour.  The other son smirked and pointing at his brother quipped, “Yeah…….what he said” –  always the class clown. I then asked my husband, a bit of a renaissance man with a love of both art and science. He thought for a moment, “Colour occupies the space between black and white,” was his response – trust him to wax philosophical. A text-book definition might read something like, ‘Colour is the property of an object that remains when all other properties (size, shape, texture etc.) are eliminated’, or ‘Color is that perception by which we can differentiate otherwise identical objects…..blah blah blah’ .

Interesting perspectives y’all but in fact, colour isn’t a single attribute. Albert Munsell, an early 20th century American artist, was one of the first colour theorists to propose that an individual colour is actually comprised of three different attributes:

  • Hue, which Munsell defined as: “the quality by which we distinguish one color from another, as a red from a yellow, a green, a blue or a purple.” It is represented by the hue circle.
  • Value, which according to Munsell is: “the quality by which we distinguish a light color from a dark one,” and is represented by the value scale.
  • Chroma, which Munsell defined as: “the degree of departure of a colour from the neutral color of the same value,” and it is represented by the Chroma scale.
Munsell's 3 attributes of colour. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Munsell’s 3 attributes of colour. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Confused yet? Well bear with me – it should become clearer. Munsell arranged these three attributes into a three-dimensional figure known as the Munsell Colour Space. Hue is displayed circumferentially, value is placed along the vertical axis, with darkest at the bottom and lightest at the top, and chroma radiates horizontally from the centre, moving from neutral outward to full chroma.

Munsell Colour Space showing Hue, Value and Chroma. Graphics: Sue Gaviller (adapted from Hue, Value and Chroma Chart,

Munsell Colour Space showing Hue, Value and Chroma.
Graphics: Sue Gaviller (adapted from Hue, Value and Chroma Chart,

The above image represents only one horizontal segment – the entire 3D figure, called the Munsell Colour Solid, looks more like a warped sphere (image below left). The sphere is warped because colours don’t all behave the same way – individual hues have differing chromatic intensity and reach full chroma at varying value levels. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – I’ll elaborate on each of the three attributes in subsequent posts.

Munsell Color Solid - insde

A look inside the Munsell Color Solid, from: A Grammar of Color, A.H. Munsell, 1921

All colours are contained within the Munsell color solid. Image courtesy of Munsell ColorImage courtesy of Munsell Color

All colours are contained within the Munsell color solid. Image courtesy of Munsell Color

Looking inside the sphere (above right), we see that the colours get lighter from bottom to top, and brighter or less gray, from the centre to the outer rim. A vertical cross-section through the centre of the solid would produce a 2D image such as this:

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

or this……………

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

If we were to segment the 3D figure like an orange, then each segment (1/2 of a vertical slice) is a page in the Munsell Book of Colour. Each page is of a single hue with all the chroma and value permutations of that hue.

 Munsell Colour books. Photo Credit: Mark Fairchild

Several editions of the Munsell Book of Color, as well as the Atlas of the Munsell Color System.
Photo Credit: Mark Fairchild

Value and Chroma levels are all numbered so any colour can be given a precise numerical description; for example, the colour circled below is a red (5R, which I’ll explain later), with a Value of 5 and Chroma of 4, hence it would be called 5R 5/4.

Munsell numerical description of muted red, 5R 5/4. Graphics: Sue Gaviller (adapted from Hue, Value and Chroma Chart,

Munsell’s system allows for numerical expression of colour using exact Hue, Value and Chroma measurements. Here we see a dusty rose colour belonging to the hue of red (5R), with medium value and medium-low chroma, thus is designated 5R 5/4.
Graphics: Sue Gaviller (adapted from Hue, Value and Chroma Chart,

poppy 5R 5 4

Photo: The Garden Color Book, Paul Williams.

The Munsell Color Classification System is an accepted method, worldwide, for describing colors numerically – it is used by artists, soil scientists, brewmasters, gemologists or anyone who requires a precise way of expressing colour. So what does all this mean for us? Surely I don’t intend for you to assign letters and numbers to all your plants – do I? Of course not silly gardener. That kind of precision would be of no practical use. Rather, my aim is to provide you with a framework for working with colour – the colour of the poppy above for instance – so you can approximate what hue family it belongs to (red), how it relates to other colours, and how to use it accordingly.

This planting of red, coral and pink poppies is unified by the common hue of red; the two inset photos provide further examples of colours in the same family.

This planting of red, coral and pink poppies is unified by the common hue of red; the two inset photos provide further examples of colours in the same family.

Still confused? Don’t give up just yet. Over the next few months I’ll be exploring each aspect of colour individually, focusing on the relevance to garden design.

So to help brighten the dreary days of winter, stop by once in a while and warm up with a shot of colour. Next post I’ll take a closer look at the first attribute of colour; Hue. Hope hue, uh you, can join me!

’Til then,


There and Back; a Hortigeek’s Tale, Part 3 ~ Going Coastal ~

Our time in wine country had been amazing – Len has professional associates in the area so we’d been treated very well. The coast was calling though, and for me this was the most anticipated part of our trip. Our next stop would be Monterey, which hubby had determined (mistakenly) we could reach via a single Interstate. Somewhere between Fremont and San Jose he asked his navigator (me) to check his directions (which he proactively wrote out every night before bed) to make sure the highway didn’t turn anywhere. Comparing his written directions to our TripTik, I realized something wasn’t right. I advised The Captain that according to our map, I-680 did not continue through to Monterey, that in fact it appeared to end abruptly just east of San Jose. It’s not so much that he didn’t believe me, as that he couldn’t disbelieve Mr. Google………until we found ourselves on the 101 heading towards San Francisco and there were no more signs for I-680. So we turned west somewhere, then eventually south until we ended up in Santa Cruz (which fortunately was less than an hour from Monterey and a very nice drive along the coastal highway). After this, it was I who consulted Google maps every night and wrote down directions for our next day’s destinations. I won’t say we didn’t get lost again after that, but at least I could read and understand my own directions. I suppose our continued use of such tools as maps must seem archaic, considering every cell phone now comes equipped with GPS.

When we arrived in Monterey and finally found our hotel (my husband did eventually break down and use his GPS), we checked in and asked the young ladies at front desk where we could find the best seafood. Our intention had been to have dinner in the famed Cannery Row district, but hotel staff asserted that the best seafood was to be had at fisherman’s wharf. The hotel was several blocks from the waterfront so we could walk along the beach to get to the wharf. It was windy and cool walking along the Monterey coast – a refreshing change from the hot still air of the valleys. I was fascinated with the unique coastal vegetation – rugged wind-sculpted Monterey cypress punctuated masses of succulent Delosperma carpeting the sandy hills beside the shore. Every so often I’d stop and turn to snap another shot.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

I inhaled deeply the ocean’s salty aroma and revelled in the wind blowing through my hair. I heard the distant bark of sea lions which grew louder as we neared the wharf.

When we reached the dock it was too early for dinner so we wandered a bit. We found a little coffee shack and as usual, ordered a dark-roast – almost everywhere we visited we’d been unable to get a cup of dark-roast coffee. I started to think maybe it was a Canadian thing, this love of really rich dark brew, but here in Monterey we were finally able to sate our coffee cravings. Sipping the first dark brew I’d had since leaving Canada, we strolled around the wharf area and soaked up the coastal essence.

Beautiful Mexican sage bush (Salvia leucantha) in Monterey. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Beautiful Mexican sage bush (Salvia leucantha) at the Monterey wharf. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Masses of Grasses: the reddish inflorescence of this dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) looks stunning against red-brown cedar shakes, Monterey Marina. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Echium - monterey

Purple spikes of Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) are a common site in coastal gardens and landscapes. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We followed the sound of sea lions to their basking place on a raft beside the docks. I don’t know why I became so enamoured of these particular marine mammals – perhaps it was their goofy social antics, belying the incredible grace with which they swim and dive. Or the way they lay in the sun, their soft brown fur glistening, lifting their heads periodically to peer around before laying back down again, so seemingly content. They reminded me of our sweet brown dog Pepper, whom we’d lost only a couple of months before. It was mid January when we were given the news that she was terminally ill. My one wish had been that she’d have a chance to soak up the sun in her backyard, splayed out on her side the way she loved to do – just one more time. On a warm March day after weeks of vicious cold, she was able to do this – for maybe five minutes she lay there on a patch of dry grass, breathing softly, then got up and looked me straight in the eye as if trying to tell me something. I knew then that she was ready, indeed she wanted, to be set free to chase rabbits – in that big dog-park-in-the-sky. She’d lived a good life, a long life, and while I was at peace with the decision that had to be made, I knew I’d miss her terribly. And so it was that every time I saw or heard sea lions, I’d think of her and feel awash in warmth………and just a little melancholy.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

These furry brown sea mammals are sooo adorable are they not? Photo: Sue Gaviller

The wharf offered many choices for dining, each venue featuring plated displays of mouth-watering menu items and someone posted at the door beckoning passersby to come dine there. It was difficult to choose, so we chose the one with the first available window seat. Equally difficult was trying to decide what to select from the menu – in the end I opted for a ‘Captains Plate’ which had a bit of everything. And they boasted the best clam chowder in town so I had to try some of that too………yup I rolled outta there when we were finished. But a divine meal it was, eating succulent seafood and watching the sea lions settle on the rocks as the sun set.

While in Monterey we did visit Cannery Row (had another great cuppa dark java), as well as the artist’s community of Carmel about 20 miles south of Monterey. Both are tourist destinations, and since it was a weekend, they were very busy places. We agreed that we’d like to come back one day, when we had more time – and there were fewer people.

A contemporary planting, with a nautical flair in Cannery Row. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A contemporary planting – with a nautical flair. Cannery Row, Monterey. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A Brewer’s Blackbird flits about a casual coastal planting. Photo: Sue Gaviller

In the artist's community of Carmel by the Sea, the artist's touch abounds, as in the pretty painted vine on the house above and the artful container arrangements below. Photos: Sue Gaviller

In Carmel, the artist’s touch abounds – note the pretty painted vine on the house (above) and the artful container arrangements (below). Photos: Sue Gaviller

container planting Carmelcontainer planting Carmel 2

When we left Monterey we drove south along the Big Sur coastline – a magnificent drive along winding, cliff-hugging roads with panoramic views of the ocean. The heights and the road’s proximity to the edge might have made me queasy had the vistas not been so awe-inspiring.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Breathtaking views along the Big Sur coastline have earned this portion of route #1 the designation of National Scenic Byway and ‘All-American Road’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We continued our drive along the beautiful coastal highway until we reached the town of Cambria where we turned inland towards Paso Robles – there were a couple of wineries in the area we wanted to visit, so we spent the night. We’d been on the road now for two weeks and I needed to wash some clothes – fortunately our hotel had laundry facilities. When I approached the front desk to get some coin for the washer and dryer, the clerk politely obliged. Well, more than politely – in his Southern-drawl he added, “Ma’am you smell real good. Like real expensive perfume.” The young fellow was probably just being friendly, but I found his candor a bit unnerving, especially since I wasn’t wearing any perfume.

It was pretty here, though hot and very dry – the effects of California’s drought were more obvious the further south we went. I was thankful we were back inland for only a day or two before we’d be heading back to the coast. San Francisco was our next destination.

I’d never been to San Francisco and I really didn’t think I was going to be all that thrilled with the sprawling metropolis. But I agreed to go for one night just so I could say I’d been to San Fran. Thanks to my directions we had no trouble finding our hotel, and to my delight, our room was on the 20th floor, providing a spectacular view of the city and a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was beginning to like it here. It was mid afternoon so we had time to grab a Starbucks and take a leisurely stroll before heading to the wharf for dinner.

We made our way up the hills and down, marvelling at the distinctive design of the buildings. San Francisco’s architecture can only be described as……….well, San Francisco. It is entirely unique. Of course there are many examples of contemporary design, but it is the peculiar mix of architectural styles in the older row homes that I found so intriguing.

san fran

Mosaic tile steps, terra-cotta containers and scrolled wrought iron create a distinct Spanish Mediterranean feel in the front entrance of this San Francisco home. Photo: Sue Gaviller

It is often referred to as Victorian, and there are certainly those elements – bay windows, steeply pitched roofs and highly decorative flourishes.

But there are also Spanish Mediterranean influences (mosaic tile, scrolled wrought iron, courtyard gardens) and some even exhibit a hint of New England Colonial – clapboard-like siding painted soft blue, ivory or beige, with white trim and paned windows.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A pretty courtyard garden in San Francisco. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Bright fuchsia Bougainvillea and white climbing rose frame an entryway; lavender, lily of the Nile and azaleas line the pathway. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We reached fishermen’s wharf about half an hour before our dinner reservation so we had time to do a little souvenir shopping. San Francisco’s wharf isn’t near as quaint as Monterey’s – it’s big and busy and……….utterly enchanting. The sound of jazz floated through the air. I assumed it was music being piped from one of the many shops or restaurants, but I discovered later it was a lone busker – with a really big amp. And of course there was the now familiar sound of sea lions – here there were dozens of rafts for the cute critters to pile onto.


As expected, dinner was delectable, and the taxi-ride back to the hotel quite entertaining. The driver, a big fellow with a silky smooth voice, drove for a limo-tour company and did a fine job promoting San Francisco; not that it needed promoting – I was already smitten with The City by the Bay.

We spent the following morning in Golden Gate Park – the park has a world-renowned Japanese garden which I’d always wanted to see; another reason I’d agreed to visit San Francisco. After the difficulty I had photographing Portland’s Japanese gardens I hoped to have more success here. This garden was very different – brighter and more open than the dappled shade of Portland’s moist, almost-tropical garden. I mistakenly assumed this would make it easier to shoot. It didn’t. The hazy white sky created unpleasant glare and gave everything a yellowish tone. Of course if I was a real photographer I’d have known how to compensate for this. As I looked about the gardens I noted another significant difference – whereas Portland had more coarse textured plants like Hosta and abundant large-leaved rhododendrons to break up the finer texture of pines, ferns and grasses, much of the plant material here seemed finer textured. This resulted in a somewhat busy feel to plant compositions and also contributed to my photographic woes – the fine texture created so many areas of light and dark, hence the same difficulty with harsh contrast as the dappled shade of Portland. Sigh.

Still, it was beautiful and given the Japanese philosophy of celebrating ‘place’, it’s entirely valid that a Japanese garden in coastal California would differ from that of an Oregon rainforest. Regardless, it was well worth the visit.

Photo: S Gaviller

Iris ensata adds an elegant splash of colour to rich green vegetation at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Cloud pruning is the Japanese practice of trimming trees and shrubs into cloud-like forms. Known as ‘Niwaki’, which means ‘garden tree’, it is seen throughout the gardens. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Stone lanterns are an integral part of the Japanese garden. Here a small lantern provides a solid foil for the many fine-textured elements. Photo: Sue Gaviller

fern grotto

Circle of Peace in the Fern Grotto, National Aids Memorial Grove, Golden Gate Park.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

We had both thoroughly enjoyed San Francisco and knew we’d visit again – for much longer next time. But now it was time to head to our next and final destination where we would spend our anniversary, and the last few days of our trip before embarking on the long journey home. Originally Len had suggested we stay in a big fancy resort hotel in Sonoma to celebrate our marriage milestone. However, I thought something quieter would be more relaxing and romantic. My research led me to a beautiful spa resort at Bodega Bay on the Sonoma coast – very elegant but not the least ostentatious.

We arrived mid afternoon and checked into our ocean view suite, complete with luxurious lounge furniture, a wood burning fireplace, a hot tub and a private patio. A bottle of chilled champagne awaited us – a gift from resort staff in honour of our special day. Pouring ourselves a glass of the cool effervescent nectar we relaxed on the patio and gazed out at the ocean. Tidal channels and saltwater marsh, creating a bird sanctuary, lay between us and the ocean. We could hear birdsong all day, frogs chirping all night……………….and sea lions barking all day and all night. Tastefully landscaped grounds, gorgeous pool, 4-star restaurant – truly this was a little piece of paradise. I didn’t think I’d ever want to leave.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Native grasses and yellow lupins along the shoreline. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Not sure if this is the invasive artichoke thistle, but it was certainly photogenic against the misty marshlands at Bodega Bay. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The softly draping form and muted colour of dwarf ornamental grasses contrasts beautifully with the rich colour and stiff upright texture of New Zealand flax. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

This lovely coastal landscape includes handsome New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium), Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) and lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus). Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A bench in a cozy nook amid ferns and fuchsias. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A fine pair; rich dark Aeonium and soft blue-green Echeveria. Note how the foliage rosettes echo the scalloped edge of the planter. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A statue of Poseidon, Greek God of the Sea, watches over the pool area. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Yes indeed it was hard to leave – the Oceanside walks, strolls though the bird sanctuary, wonderful fresh food,  champagne by the fireplace, sea lions swimming and diving around the pier. But alas the time soon came for us to bid the coast goodbye. Our trip had come to an end – all that was left was the four-day drive back to Calgary, and this time we weren’t taking the scenic route.

Interestingly, the only negative experiences we had on the entire trip occurred on the drive home – a resort hotel in Reno with a casino that was so smoky we could smell it in our room. The room itself was posh on the surface, but somehow seemed really seedy – dozens of faux satin and velveteen pillows on the bed, and a black, not-terribly-clean hot tub at the foot of the bed. I wondered if the adage ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ might apply to Reno as well.

While we were out for dinner that night we received a panicked text from one of our sons who’d been looking after our house while we were away. He’d been heading out the door to leave when he saw, at the foot of the steps, a big ol’ skunk. He wasn’t sure what to do. I knew what he was thinking – a number of years ago, his friend from across the road came home late one night, startled a skunk that was hiding in the shrubbery and got himself sprayed. I’d never really had any ‘up-close and personal’ dealings with the striped villains, though I’d smelled their stench periodically in the neighbourhood. And growing up on an acreage in Southern Ontario, the family dog would run afoul of one at least once every summer. Supposedly the only way to get rid of the smell was to bathe them in tomato juice, but I don’t honestly remember doing so with any of our dogs. I was pretty sure my twenty-something son wasn’t going to be too keen on a late night tomato juice dip – and there was no way of avoiding Pepé Le Pew in his current position. I texted him back, “Pour yourself a Scotch and sit down for a bit til he’s gone,” was the best I could come up with.

Then there was the horrible meal we had in Twin Falls the following night – the vegetables were literally rotten. And our last night on the road, in Great Falls – we got bumped from our hotel room (which we’d reserved weeks before) and dumped into what was likely the worst room in the hotel; way at the back with train tracks only a few feet from our window, and a really small bed. It made us all the more eager to get home.

Late afternoon the next day we arrived home. I was greeted with the colorful blooms of moss phlox, creeping thyme, dwarf iris………….and lilacs. I hadn’t missed them after all! Walking up to the front door, suitcase in hand, I stopped and closed my eyes. For a moment, the breeze carried me back to the California coast I breathed deeply and my nostrils filled with Syringa‘s sweet perfume. I was home. Though I still felt the call of the road, it was time to dig in and get to work. This was my busy season and I knew I’d have to hit the ground running………….

‘Til next time,