THE beauty of a garden in full flower is utterly captivating — whether it be formal, with colour palette carefully ordered, or a glorious, mix and match profusion of cottage garden-style.

When decorating a room in our home we usually start with the walls and any permanent built-in features, then move on to choosing larger items of furniture, in a style that will set the scene, and finally come the finishing touches — pictures, ceramics, cushions, rugs — and all the other colourful pieces that co-ordinate the room, making it homely, stylish and exciting.

Designing a small garden is very much a parallel process to interior decoration. For walls, read boundary fences or hedges, larger pieces of furniture are the equivalent of structural shrubs and architectural plants, while the uplifting, stylish, finishing touches are our carefully chosen, colourful flowers and leaves.

Colour used well is one of the gardener’s most powerful and uniquely expressive resources. Nothing has more immediate impact on a garden’s atmosphere than colour. It animates the garden, infusing it with a special aura that can influence our mood. All colours have an emotional 'temperature’, whether soothing and reflective or exciting and lively. Deciding the preferred ‘emotion’ of the space can influence the palette accordingly, and help narrow down the sometimes bewildering choice of colours.

At primary school we were all taught about primary colours, using the colour wheel, which is based on nature’s colour spectrum, the rainbow. On one side of the wheel are the hot colours — reds, oranges, yellows, while on the cool side are greens, blues and purples.

The most intense colour contrasts are between colours on opposite sides of the wheel cool blue and — hot orange, plus all their tones and shades, when set against each other will be strikingly lively.

Likewise, yellow paired with violet will be equally intense and capable of lifting the mood.

Selecting a colour theme, or series of themes, is the most effortless way of ensuring a planting design is pleasingly focused. Themed colour schemes, based on temperature, use shades from only one side of the colour wheel.

Grouping just the hot colours and their tones together (red, orange, yellow plus strong pink and dark red) will give a cohesive scheme that is energetic and vibrant, embracing just the colours that project forward.

Choosing from the cool side of the spectrum gives the opposite effect, with the soothing hues of blues, greens, mauves and purple producing a peaceful, contemplative space. These cool colours are tranquil and less demanding, receding in space rather than advancing towards us, so making the most of smaller areas.

Set apart from the other colours by its cool luminosity, white has distinct possibilities when it comes to designing with colour but can be difficult to place in the garden scene.

White provides the strongest tonal contrast with most dark foliage and is the last tone to be lost at night as the dusk closes in, so making white borders a good choice for gardeners who are at work most of the day.

In a mixed border setting, however, white creates almost a point of light that attracts the eye, giving a restless, unfocused look to the scene. I find most other colours can be successfully combined in planting if white, cream and very pale yellow are kept out of the picture.

Although some gardeners will want to keep to a small, clearly-defined range of colours for a calm and focused scheme, more adventurous gardeners combine and interweave groups of opposing colours, manipulating them to produce exotic contrasts.

Ultimately experimentation is the best way to find out what inspires you in terms of colour in the garden — there are no right or wrong colour choices. Just treat flowers in the garden as paints in a palette. Experiment on a small scale by grouping different permutations of flowers and leaves together into bunches in the hand to see what works for you — that way lie unexpected successes and delights. The endless permutations made possible by different combinations of plants mean there is always a new, exciting colour partnership to discover.

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Chartreuse, or lime green, is an ideal colour for creating drama in shady spots. Carex Everillo is demonstrating, teamed up with the pink foliaged fuchsia Tom West, that telling colour effects need not come just from flowers.

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One of may favourite plants for colour, the violet blue, aster frikartii Monch is blended in a cool tonal scheme with dahlia karma lagoon.

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The easiest way to make a statement with colour is to pick one hue. Create depth by using different shades — for example, exploring the range of reds. A colour theme planting of cannas uses two or three adjacent colours in the spectrum to create an harmonious but gloriously vibrant display

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The soft colours of mauves, purples, and blues can make the garden feel larger because they seem to be further away and less dominant. Here the gentle purple of Agastache blue bonnet sets off the true blue of late-flowering salvia uliginosa. This salvia is the only one in its extended family that prefers to have ‘wet feet’.

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The most striking combinations are complementary colours that lie directly opposite each other in the spectrum. Here the orange flowers and lime green striped leaves of canna Bethany are seen poised against the vibrant purple flowers of strobilanthes atropurpurea. This handsome and unusual plant is a member of the acanthus family, hales from Northern India, thrives in sun or part shade and any soil that is not prone to drying out. Its mass of purple-blue hooded flowers remain a feature for many weeks.

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A good example of a colour-blend scheme sees dahlia American dawn and dahlia con amour paired up together.

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A subtle combination of foliage and flower colour marries up phormium tricolour with sedum purple emperor. This pairing relies not only on colour contrast but also on the differing habit and leaf shape of the two plants to produce its very long season of interest.

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Another subtle grouping demonstrates dynamic colour effect does not necessarily rely on flowers. Here the annual iresine (kept going each year by cuttings) looks well with the hardy heuchera claret. The dusky purple of the heuchera is picked up between the veining in the handsome iresine leaf.

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A very contemporary take on colour combining is to set a cool version of a colour against its hot counterpart for a vibrant, energetic theme. Dahlia karma Irene is the hot red, while dahlia sweet lady provides the cool contrast.

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An exuberant cottage garden mix of hues and tones is held together by excluding very pale colours, such as white, cream or lemon yellow, that tend to distract the eye and lend a discordant note.

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A multi-toned grouping of summer flowers, hot and cold colours combined, is given solidity and stability by the clipped bay in the background

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A favourite late summer colour combination associates the electric blue of aster frikartii Monch with the acid green of euphorbia ceratocarpa. There are very few other colours that this rare euphorbia does not enhance with its extended season of interest, remaining in beauty from May to November.

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It can be a delightful colour strategy to mix together contrasting flower shapes that share harmonising tones. Tints are the pale version of pure colours, here the delicate apricot tints are derived from orange, as seen in dahlia dawn and dusk in harmony with canna Louis Cottin.

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Contemporary colour combinations that zing and vibrate are often based on opposites attracting. Here luminous begonia illumination orange is potted up with cooler blue-toned dahlia karma lagoon.