4 Ways to Design Colorful Floral Arrangements

Four simple hue-pairing methods to help you arrange homegrown beauties into 
a class of their own

Mike Irvine
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Color Theory

In the Sunset Test Garden, we have an incredible rainbow of flowers—deep purples and sharp greens, creamy yellows and rusty reds. With such an array at our fingertips, we decided to arrange stems not by size and shape but by their vibrant hues. In other words, we got back to basics.

“One particularly beautiful bloom starts the composition,” says Alethea Harampolis, cofounder with Stefani Bittner of Bay Area–based Homestead Design Collective. “The rest of the materials and colors follow from that.” For our focal flowers, we chose English roses, lesser-known dahlias, low-water echinacea, and a zinnia that won’t quit.

To pick their companions, Bittner and Harampolis suggested a tool you may remember from a childhood art class: the color wheel. This helpful guide shows how pigments best mix and mingle—in this case, in bouquets. The results are four dazzling arrangements organized by simple-to-follow color principles. We call it Color Theory 101. But don’t worry—it’s an easy A.

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Let Opposites Attract

Choose two complementary hues that sit directly across from each other on the wheel, for a high-contrast stand-out palette. For example, blue and orange, or red and green. Ideally, use one color as your background and the other as an accent.

Main Attraction: Dahlia

This is a tale of two dahlias—the deep purple ‘Sharky’ in opposition to the buttermilk yellow of ‘Café Au Lait’. The plum tones are enhanced with similarly dark and dusky flowering basil, black scabiosa, and chocolate cosmos, while the cheerful blossoms of ‘Twyning’s After Eight’ dahlia pair well with its creamy, coffee-toned companion. Strawberry foxglove rounds out the arrangement—a happy medium between two contrasts.
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Meet the Neighbors

Pick three analogous hues that sit next to one another on the color wheel for a soothing scheme that is easy on the eyes. A gradation of neighboring blues, for instance, makes for a solid lineup, but there are many possibilities.

Main Attraction: Rose

A combination of deep orange, creamy apricot, and golden yellow just feels right. Find this harmonious threesome throughout the arrangement but also in the focal flowers— ‘Lady of Shalott’ and ‘Wollerton Old Hall’ roses. Complete this classic in the making with peppermint-scented geranium leaves, plus Illumination ‘Apricot’ digiplexis, ‘Charlotte’ veronica, Miss Lemon abelia, ‘Sunset’ runner bean, and ‘Vision in White’ astilbe.
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Make a Triangle

For a well-balanced creation that still packs a punch, go triadic. Select three colors that draw an equilateral triangle on the wheel; royal purple, orange, and green keep especially good company.

Main Attraction: Zinnia

Give one of your three chosen hues center stage, while using the other two as accents; otherwise there’s 
too much vying for attention. Here, orange takes the lead with ‘Queen Red Lime’ zinnias and the fading leaves of an ornamental plum. In supporting roles are lively green foliage and hints of deep purple and violet—here’s looking at you, ‘African Blue’ basil, ‘Walker’s Low’ nepeta, and ‘Rozanne’ geranium.
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Play with Shades and Tints

Now that you’ve mastered the color wheel, step up your arranging game with tints and shades of your favorite hues. As a rule of thumb, tints result when white is mixed into a pigment (the way pink appears when you swirl a little white into red paint), and shades result when black is used (hello, navy blue).
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Extra Credit

  • For varying texture, pair large, showy focals with tall spikes and small blossoms.
  • Don’t dismiss fragrance. Bring aromatic blossoms into the home for a summer-fresh effect.
  • From full bloom to seedpod, use plants at all stages to keep things seasonal.
  • Add drama (and interest) with wayward branches and asymmetric structure.