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Color may be the most popular element in landscape design, but don’t underestimate the aesthetic appeal that texture can bring to your landscaping.
When landscapers speak of “texture” they are usually referring to visual texture–the size and shape of the plant and its foliage–as opposed to the tactile experience.
Plant textures range from fine to medium to coarse (sometimes called “bold”). The majority of plants are medium textured. But you can purposefully add visual interest to your landscape by including fine- and coarse-textured specimens in your planting beds.
Fine vs. Coarse Texture
Fine-textured plants typically display small leaves and/or blossoms. With their light and airy feel they create an illusion of filling space. Relaxed and undemanding, these plants tend to recede into the background. They can make small spaces seem bigger.
Fine textures also accentuate the form and color of other plants. (For instance, think of baby’s breath.)
Some other common fine-textured plants include honey locust, lavendar and most ferns (particularly, maidenhair).
Coarse-textured plants, on the other hand, typically have large leaves and/or blossoms. They’re exciting, in-your-face attention-grabbers, and can produce a heavy, tropical sensation. Used in masses, they make spaces feel smaller. Coarse textures compete for visual attention with the form and color of other plants. (Think hostas.)
Other common coarse-textured plants include western catalpa, hydrangea, many rhododendrons and canna lily.
Perception Is Everything
Texture is actually determined by the way the human eye perceives light and shadow. Fine-textured plants reflect many small patches of light and shadow. Coarse-textured plants reflect fewer, larger blotches.
But motion also contributes to our perception of texture (for instance, when wind causes these patterns of light and shadow to constantly change). Notice how weeping willows and ornamental grasses swaying in the breeze appear even finer textured than when they’re at rest.
Our view of texture is also dependent on distance. Up close, most needle-leaved trees have a very fine texture. But step back far enough, and all those needles combine into a coarsely textured form. So in order to produce a truly nuanced landscaping design, it’s important to determine how the texture of a planting will be perceived from multiple vantage points.
A plant’s branching structure also affects its texture. Small-leaved plants that are tightly branched (such as Japanese yew and Japanese barberry) produce a dense effect, making the plant look more solid than it really is. Whereas small-leaved plants with open branching (such as honey locust, and royal fern) appear light and airy.
Many other characteristics can affect our overall impression of a plant’s texture. For instance, the following factors contribute to giving a plant finer texture:
• Compound, dissected, or lobed leaves.
• Variegated leaves.
• Contrasting light underside of leaves.
• Ridged or shiny leaves.
• Regular placement of leaves along the branch or stem.
• Flower or fruit breaking up the regular pattern of leaves.
The Beauty of Contrast
By contrasting plant textures within a landscape you can produce eye-catching combinations and prevent monotony.
Too much of any texture appears inharmonious to the eye, so achieving balance is key. That means ensuring that the textures you mix together will highlight one another, rather than hog the limelight.
Too much textural contrast can make a garden feel busy. Some gardening experts recommend using about 1/3 fine-textured plantings with 2/3 medium and coarse plants to achieve a nice balance. Here are some combinations you may wish to consider:
• Pair Silver Lace dusty miller with coarse-leaved red salvia. Both species are drought tolerant and thrive in the Rocky Mountain area.
• Red salvia also pairs well with yellow French marigolds, providing not only textural contrast, but also a vibrant red-yellow flower combination.
• Another good match is the lovely canna lily with just about any ornamental grass. (See more about grasses, below.) Cannas should be planted as an annual in colder regions.
• Fragrant, fine-textured lavender can pull double-duty when combined with the coarser coneflower.
• Cold-hardy leopard plants, with their strikingly large leaves, pair well with black mondo grass and/or border grass (neither of which is technically classified as an ornamental grass).
More About Grasses
As you can see, one of the best ways to add textural appeal is with ornamental grasses. Grasses play with light and add movement like no other plants. They can be planted in masses, but are particularly striking when used as accents. And they can help your landscape maintain visual appeal year round.