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Garden Designers Roundtable – Using Texture in the Garden

by Rebecca Sweet

Welcome to the Garden Designers Roundtable, where designers from around the world participate in monthly discussions about all things gardening. The topic for this month is Texture.

As many gardeners already know, gardening appeals to all the senses.  Not only do our eyes visually benefit from our creative efforts, but equally important are a garden’s tastes, delicious scents and gentle sounds.  The sense of touch, while equally important, is often ignored.  Why?  Many gardeners aren’t exactly sure how to use texture in their gardens.  Sure, anyone can plant a soft and touchable Lamb’s Ear along a border, but  I’m talking about using a plant’s texture to work for you – to achieve higher-level effects.  Here’s a few examples….

1.  Tricking the eye

Did you know that you can actually use the texture of a plant to visually trick the eye into thinking a space is larger or smaller than it actually is?   For example, if you have a garden that is quite expansive it can tend to look a little overwhelming as the eye doesn’t know where to start.  Creating intimate rooms and spaces in large gardens are often a challenge.  One way to create a sense of intimacy and bring a large space down in scale is to use several plants with bold and coarse textures.  Examples might be Rhododendrons, Gunnera or Viburnum.

On the contrary, if your garden is on the smaller side, with the use of finely textured plants you can create the illusion of more space.  How?  Plants with small, feathery leaves or flowers (such as Lavender, Maidenhair Fern, Bamboo or Wood Aster) have a light and airy feel, and can visually recede into the background.  Place a plant with bold and coarse foliage in the front and voila! – your small space looks a little larger.

2.  Changing the mood of the garden

Yes, a plant’s texture can also set the mood of a garden.  For example, many bold and coarse plants tend to have a tropical feel, like ornamental Banana plants, Cannas and Angel’s Trumpets. However there are also many tropical-looking plants that are just as happy in colder climates, such as Cottinus, Coral Bells and cold tolerant palms.

On the contrary, if you’re wanting to create a garden with an English or cottage feel to it, remember to include fine textured plants such as Spirea, Coral Bells (yes, this was mentioned above, but while the leaves are bold the flowers are as airy as they come!), Cottage Pinks and many grasses.

3.  Creating Harmony with Texture

A common way to add harmony in the garden is to repeat a few chosen colors throughout, commonly referred to as color echoes.  But echoes can also be created with other plant features, including texture.

For example, look at the foliage of this phormium and how the spiky, sword-shaped leaves echo the wispy foliage of plant at its feet.  In addition to the texture echo, the shades of olive green are also repeated in this planting scheme. When you can include two echoes in one – all the better!Take the concept of echoes one step further by repeating a plant’s texture with nearby hardscaping.  For example, the bumpy foliage of both of these aloes perfectly complements the roughness of  the brick.  Again, not only are the colors repeated, but so is the texture.

When using texture in your garden, here’s a tip:  too many plants with fine textures creates a fuzzy blur, while too many bold and rough plants can be claustrophobic.If you can keep your planting beds balanced with a ratio of  1/3 fine texture to 2/3 coarse, your garden will sing with harmony!

Thanks for stopping by today, and please make sure to visit the other members of the Roundtable to read their thoughts on Texture in the garden!

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Rochelle Greayer:  Studio G


Lydia Plunk June 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Thank you for the reading list! Your site is part of my continuing education.

Rebecca Sweet June 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm

You’re so welcome, Lydia – I’m glad you’re enjoying my site!

Deborah Silver June 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Dear Rebecca, I like how specific your essay is-about making use of texture as a design element. It is one thing to understand the meaning of the word texture-it is an entirely different thing to put that understanding to inspired use in a garden. Thanks for this, Deborah

Rebecca Sweet June 28, 2012 at 6:46 am

Hi Deborah – I went back and forth trying to decide whether to focus on photos explaining different textures or explaining how to use them in the garden so I’m glad you enjoyed this interpretation on the topic. If I had photos as fabulous as yours, I probably would’ve gone the other route! ;)

Robert Webber June 27, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Rebecca, simply a masterclass in how to use texture. Giving u A*!!!
Thanks and Best

Rebecca Sweet June 28, 2012 at 6:40 am

An ‘A’ from you, Robert? I’ll take it!!! :)

Felicia June 27, 2012 at 11:14 am

These concepts are deep! I’m still pondering your fab explanations and examples and working out how to put it all together in my borders. So bigger leaves equals course texture? That’s the best way my mind can kind of understand it. I’m thinking of my hot color border. It’s in my tiny backyard and has walkways on both sides so has no “front”. But I want to make the area look bigger. Do shrub knockout roses contrast enough with lantana? I’ve got cannas in there too. But I’m using a part of it just this year for tomatoes and squash so I suddenly see what you mean when I see the lantana against the large leafed squash. Looks great. Now to figure out what large leafed plant to replace it with in the fall. Thanks Rebecca!

Rebecca Sweet June 28, 2012 at 6:39 am

Hi Felicia, I’m so glad to hear you liked my post! Bigger leaves aren’t always coarse (just think of a Magnolia, for example), but more often than not they are. You live in Georgia, right? I’m wondering if an artichoke or phormium would be a year-round plant to replace the squash? I love phormiums so much and there’s so many colors, shapes and sizes. One of my new favorites is ‘Fire Bird’ – very upright shape and gorgeous red tones.

Desert Dweller / David C. June 27, 2012 at 6:58 am

#3 seems to be something I get…but this helps me to spend more time on what I need to get more – #2 changing mood (often by adding one strong item) and #1 on giving illusions of depth and size. Thanks!

Rebecca Sweet June 27, 2012 at 8:08 am

You’re so welcome, David. That’s what I love about the GDRT – we’re always learning something new from our fellow designers!

Laura June 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Great post! I have been learning so much from you. I love your aesthetic sense, and taste. I love the 1/3 to 2/3 ratio. I will remember it in my garden.

Rebecca Sweet June 27, 2012 at 8:09 am

You’re so sweet, Laura. Thanks so much for the compliments and so glad I can teach a fellow gardner a little something new!! :)

Jocelyn/the art garden June 26, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Well done, Rebecca. I like your concept of “texture echoes” to set the mood in the garden.

Rebecca Sweet June 26, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Thank you, Jocelyn!

Christina Salwitz June 26, 2012 at 11:34 am

Seriously, this needs to be included in school ready texts on “Texture”, in particular the lesson on “tricking the eye”. Loved that!!

Rebecca Sweet June 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Christina, you’re always so darn sweet! I’m glad you liked my slant on Texture this month!!

Linda Phillips June 26, 2012 at 10:33 am

Great tips.
I do like that last photo. The foliage is balanced just right.

Rebecca Sweet June 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Thanks so much, Linda. I particularly liked that photo as well – when the balance is right, it’s so pleasing isn’t it??

Unique by Design June 26, 2012 at 8:25 am

Awesome Post Rebecca!!

Rebecca Sweet June 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Thank you, Helen!!

Thomas Rainer June 26, 2012 at 6:08 am

Great post, Rebecca. I enjoyed how you translated the images into design lessons. Very insightful.

Rebecca Sweet June 26, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Coming from you, Thomas, that’s a great compliment. Thank you.

Pam/Digging June 25, 2012 at 10:49 pm

I love your example of pairing the like textures of the aloe and brick. Good tip too about creating the illusion of a larger or smaller space through the use of texture. You always have great suggestions!

Rebecca Sweet June 26, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Pam – we both emphasized using hardscaping to echo texture, didn’t we! Great minds….I guess. Thanks for the kind words, my friend!

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