We are family, I got all my sisters with me.

Gardeners World recently ran a short piece about how to arrange a colour scheme for a garden using a colour wheel. We’re garden designers and that got us thinking. Sometimes it’s not clear just what a Garden Designer is, of course we all have a pretty good idea about ‘Garden’, it’s the ‘Designer’ bit that’s not so easy. It just so happens the Colour Wheel is a great place to start from.

The thing about Garden Design, well the thing for us about Garden Design, is that word Design. We’re designers. We love design, we think, breathe, dream, design. And design is a family with many siblings – who all share some pretty strong DNA. One of the strongest sequences in our DNA is the colour wheel. We all know about it and we all use it. It’s a great way to realise that good design, be it garden, textile, architecture, graphic or, as you’ll see, even poetry or music is related at a very deep level.

So just what is this colour wheel?

The colour wheel has a long history stretching back to Isaac Newton and his famous splitting of white light with a prism. He even drew the first colour wheel. Which is impressive as it’s not the most obvious way to represent the differing colours of the rainbow. But what a wheel does is open up the possibility of seeing relationships between colours, more of which later!



Things get even more interesting when Goethe enters the arena. He thought that each colour had a specific emotional resonance, yellow for example “In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character”. We might be a bit sceptical about matching exact emotional states to colour, but he was really on to something in emphasising that colour has an impact upon us, it can affect emotion and mood, it’s not something simply to be looked at.

The modern colour wheel and Garden Design

After that the colour wheel really took off and after many different versions we arrive at the one we are most familiar with today. It consists of 12 colours arranged in a wheel and having very specific relations to each other. There are the 3 primary colours; red yellow and blue, the 3 secondary colours produced by mixing any two of the primaries together; orange, green and violet, and then the 6 tertiary colours made by mixing adjacent primary and secondary colours; yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-voilet, red-violet and red-orange.

This is where you can devise colour schemes. The usual methods are to use harmony, contrast or triads.

Harmony use two or three colours that lie next to each other on the wheel, like red-orange, orange, yellow-orange. This gives a peaceful, soothing effect.

Contrast use colours that are opposite on the colour wheel, like Yellow and violet. This is produces what’s called simultaneous contrast, a strong vibrant effect.

Triad This is where you make a triangle on the wheel, picking three colours that are equal distance apart such as yellow-orange, blue-green and red-violet. This is a dynamic scheme but still has a unified feel to it.

Of course there’s a lot more to it than that, we’ve not touched on such things as shape, texture, scent, size and the myriad other factors we use to create a Garden Design, but always at the core of it there’s the colour wheel.

Everyone can see we’re together, As we walk on by

Now it gets even more interesting. You can see how understanding and using colour relationships would be important to nearly every area of design and art, but the colour wheel is so powerful and flexible that it occurs in some very interesting and surprising places. The way that colours relate and can harmonise or clash calls to mind the way music is organised in chords and scales, as can be seen in the famous circle of fifths. Indeed if you look carefully at Newton’s original colour wheel diagram you can see he has added musical notes to the border between each colour, making the colour wheel also stand for a whole scale. So from the beginning of the colour wheel correspondence has been found between colour and music. From then many artists have tried to create ‘colour music’ in their paintings (and let’s not get started on synaesthesia!).



A fascinating recent publication, The Rose of Temperaments (Longbarrow Press 2018), takes Goethe’s colour wheel as its start and invites 6 poets to write a sonnet based on a colour, and then to recolour one of their fellow poets’ sonnets. The pamphlet also has essays on art, poetry and semiotics by the project curators and academics from the University of Sheffield.

“Her black hair, violet irises, her cool

and level gaze, her white shirt carefully tucked.”

From Purple, by Helen Mort

“In a dark corridor I study a delicate block of native

sulphur. Low-glowing brimstone. Lemony.

A gathering of English primroses.”

From Yellow by Geraldine Monk

Living life is fun and we’ve just begun, To get our share of the world’s delights

Bringing it back to our work as Garden Designers the colour wheel is a perfect example of how the different disciplines of design interrelate and cross pollinate. So if we’re maybe playing some of the divine Bach’s preludes and fugues whilst designing your garden it might not be simply as background music but actually an integral part of the creative process!

Here’s some internet rabbit holes for you to dive down;

A very thorough video on the similarities of the colour wheel and circle of 5ths,


This is a good read on colour music;


This is an enjoyable overview of Goethe’s concept of the emotional dimension of colours;


You can get hold of a copy of the Rose of Temperaments here;