By Mel Bellar
Texture is a garden element that occasionally gets bandied about by designers, but I had never given it much explicit thought until recently. A while back I was thinking about the design for a new garden, where I want to have a large, mostly monochromatic (which in the garden, means green) area, and realized that I do consider texture. However, it is cloaked in the more obvious elements of color and structure. It is odd that I have never focused on it, because when not in the garden I am extremely aware of texture. For instance, in general I don’t care for shiny surfaces, and I tend not to respond to flat smooth surfaces. My preference runs towards matte surfaces and natural textures. This is particularly true with textures in walls, floors, table tops, fabrics, shoes, flatware, dishes and almost everything else. But in the garden, texture takes on a different kind of meaning.
Since texture is mostly about surfaces, and the garden’s surfaces are mostly implied in vertical space, the garden’s texture is a lot about a visual flattening and a feeling. Gardens can be tight and dense, or airy and open, depending on the branch structures, leaf size and density of planting. They can also feel simple or complex depending on the similarity or variation in texture. For instance, if a garden has hedges, or a fence, with boxwood borders around peonies, it is going to have a simple texture compared to an English cottage garden with many different plants in all sizes, shapes, colors and textures. Generally, I like a garden with a lush fabric, but the important thing is contrast and balance to create an appealing, comfortable, look and feel.
Texture in the garden is generally considered to be about the plants. And plant texture is complicated, composed of an amalgamation of over-all size, branch structure, leaf size and shape, leaf texture, and to some degree, color. However, there are other textural elements in the garden such as hardscaping and structures. Walls, walks, fences and structures can be constructed of many different materials. Think, wood, stone, brick, vinyl, concrete, etc. each has finer or coarser textures, just like plants. My preference runs to natural materials like wood and stone as they have naturally occurring textures. Stone, for example, can be rough, smooth, rectangular, irregular, in small or large pieces. A patio or wall with many small pieces of stone has a very different effect and feeling from one with fewer large pieces. Wood also comes in smooth, rough, round, square, natural, varnished, painted and pickled. They all have their place when combined with the other elements to create the overall desired effect.
When I start a design, my focus is on the functional requirements: screening, access paths, steps, flat functional spaces, etc. Then come the bigger bones and architectural elements like trees, larger shrubs and mass plantings. It is only at that point, that I start to home in on pure aesthetics and the small shrub, perennial and groundcover layers. With these, I think about contrasting colors and habits of plants, and that is where texture plays a more important role, explicitly or implicitly. Texture is usually a secondary consideration when choosing trees and shrubs because many other considerations take precedence, like size, vulnerability to pests (a big one!), evergreen vs. deciduous, flowering or not, and the list goes on. However, texture is important in choosing density for screening purposes like creating a backdrop or providing shade. Sometimes we want to create a scrim-like feel so that the view beyond is not totally obscured. In these instances, I am particularly fond of loose-textured trees with a vertical presence but that don’t obstruct what is beyond. There are some occasions when a dense pillar provides a great architectural element, like at the corner of a house or flanking a pathway, and is just the thing.
Plants basically fall into a coarse, medium or fine texture determined by leaf size and shape, habit and branching density. A garden with too much of any one of these will lack contrast and balance and just feel wrong. The plants will blur together, and their character will be lost.
In order to make plants stand out when they are the same color or size, we can turn to texture to provide interest. For instance, I recently designed a courtyard where there is a largish area that needs to have mostly low green coverage. However, I did not want to use turf grass because I wanted it to be more interesting and to avoid the need for mowing or weed-whacking. Instead, I am using a combination of sedges, ground covers and lowgrowing perennials. The sedges will include Carex Appalachia (light green, 8 inches with very thin blades), Carex elata “Bowles Gold” (yellowish striations, 12-24 inches and thicker blades), Carex morrowii “Ice Dance” (dark green with variegation, 12 inches, thickest blades) and Carex flacca “Blue Zinger” (blue-gray, 8-14 inches and thin blades). All these sedges have a similar habit, but the difference in coloration, blade thickness and height provide the textural difference that distinguishes the drifts. These are mixed with the shiny, rounded, dark green leaves of European ginger and the matte, light green leaves of Canadian ginger along with the more angular leaves of foamflower. In addition, there are the heart-shaped leaves of the Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), the pink-tinted light-green lance shaped leaves of the low-growing astilbe, and some Christmas and maidenhair ferns, giving the fairly large area a low-keyed but richly textured ground layer. Add 3 varieties of creeping thyme to fill in between the paving stones and to integrate with the rest of the plants, and hopefully we will have a beautiful courtyard.
Many of the plants in my courtyard example will bloom for 2 or 3 weeks and sometimes overlap in their bloom time, but it is their non-blooming presence that is important in creating the beautiful textures that will persist throughout the season. I think I am going to have to continue this topic as it requires a deeper dive.
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~