When I first started out, a CSA customer would ask for a different color combination each week. Sometimes it was a challenge, but it also forced me to look at the interactions between flowers and helped hone my design skills. One week she asked for a bouquet of primary colors and my mind stopped. I immediately went to the bold saturated hues of red, blue and yellow. It was mid-July. I had no focal flowers or spikes in those true tones, but I did have pale yellow snapdragon, cherry neon dianthus and soft blue Chinese forget-me-nots. Adding lots of white and green foliage as neutrals, I pulled it off. More importantly, I let go of my traditional color inhibitions.

I love the process of taking what I have picked and making it something special. While I scout through the harvested flowers in the studio, I start to see combinations I want to explore. I set up for bouquet making with each bucket holding five bouquets, each assigned a style. The usuals are modern bold, romantic and natural. I rotate through these until I use all the flowers. This simple structure helps keep me on task and provides an array of choices for customers.

We need to understand color theory so we can be more comfortable in our color choices and be willing to take risks that set us apart from other growers and designers. Looking back at the color wheel of childhood art classes gives insight into how colors play well together. Translated into flower colors, we have so many more options than a super bright market bouquet or the pale blush bridal bouquet.

A customer recently assumed that garden flowers mean a riot of color all over the spectrum. Occasionally my husband will reign in my tendency for too many colors: “The color wheel called; they would like two of their colors back.” It’s my job as a designer to help people curate bouquets and arrangements that are beautiful and fresh looking, whatever the combination of colors.

The easiest place to start are the adjacent cool and warm sets. These are the ones we don’t have to think about. They are consistently beautiful. Pink, blue and purple mix into a stunning bouquet every time. The warm reds, oranges and yellows take on even more personality. Lots of flowers in saturated tones with white look almost circus-like. More muted warm hues smolder like fire (or even a yummy sherbet).

The moment two seasons mix with many of the special flower colors – Coral zinnia, Goldilocks Rudbeckia, two-tone bronze snapdragons, chartreuse bupleurum, dark nigella pods and scabiosa. Photo by Betsy Busche

The secondary colors of orange, purple and green are another go-to for market bouquets. Coral and lilac are fresh and bold with their natural foliage. Apricot and plum are my default when elegance is needed in an arrangement.

Across the color wheel, the full saturated tones of the complementary colors automatically put me in mind of major holidays or school colors. In painting, we create tints or shades by adding white or black to the true hue. Fortunately, these occur naturally in flowers. We have this gorgeous spectrum of pale yellow roses, bright yellow marigold or the gold of a sunflower. My second year growing I thought I needed much more yellow in selections. I planted 120 bright yellow statice plants and barely used a stem. I imaged all these bold modern bouquets, but it didn’t work. Now we laugh about the “year of yellow.”

Now, I’m much more selective in the shades I choose. I love the pale yellow statice as it’s very versatile. A few stems soften every combination. Yellow always blooms first in mixes, especially tulips and gladiola. I have yellow glads at the same time the second wave of sunflowers are emerging, along with the Rudbeckia triloba. These are my go-to huge summer bouquets. The monochromatic mass looks fresh and new.

There are a couple magical moments where all the colors align and we’re able to take advantage of a monochromatic scheme. My favorite is early July when purple coneflowers, drumstick allium, Saponaria and lilac snapdragons bloom all at once. Together they become a beautiful mauve that can only happen in nature once a year.

Black and white have a special place. White in a bouquet automatically lightens it up. The most popular of the black flowers are Black Knight scabiosa. A one-inch flower can transform an entire arrangement with its visual snap. Chartreuse or acid green is another special flower color that makes everything around it look even better.

Color is intrinsically seasonal: pastels for spring, bright for summer, gold and orange for autumn. The actual growing season of the flowers does not always correspond to these rules. There’s a lot of purple and blue naturally occurring in autumn, including asters and ageratum. Calendula offers up bright orange in spring. Rudbeckias are day length sensitive, blooming during summer but not in autumn, where the garish gold would be much more comfortable.

One very important design trick is to color block naturally existing colors as the base of a bouquet. Sometimes it’s white, sometimes it’s magenta. Adding bits of contrast creates something bold and special. Too many colors at once creates visual chaos and the eye does not know where to look.

Color is personal and emotional. We equate it with memories and when choosing flowers we associate those colors with those we love. Offering funeral flowers is tough because there’s an older generation that equates imported flowers with important memories. The generation of your customer matters. In general, the Millennials embrace garden flowers more than others.

Some growers shy away from garish colors. Properly used, they can set something apart. Editing is important. I feel like there’s this assumption that we need to use every stem of every color in a market bouquet. We don’t and we shouldn’t. We have control over our color palette throughout the season. The goal is to regulate it with crop planning. There’s a lot of naturally occurring purple in flower perennials and herbs used for fillers. This year I intentionally added more purple within my annuals to naturalize it to my color blocking. Popping in some contrasting hues creates drama. (This may become the “year of purple.”)

Flower design has an added challenge – every flower is attached to a stem and leaves that have a color of their own. We use that to our advantage with fillers to create lushness and bulk. Most often they’re green. Green and white will always be a classic wedding combination. I’m a huge fan of the icy blues of eucalyptus, lamb’s ear, dusty miller or Silver King Artemisia with any of the purple shades. It’s instantly elegant. Burgundy appears in basil, hibiscus foliage, smoke bush or nine bark.

Flowers are pretty. As designers, we can use the rules to create contrast or blend them together so that customers believe they’re buying something very special. People purchase what they value, so let’s make something extraordinary for them.