This is the second in a series of articles on Landscape Design Principles and Elements of Composition (click here for the first entry on Color). Today we want to talk about texture in the landscape. There are many ways to achieve different textures with plants, but utilizing natural materials in a garden such as bark and foliage can work well in combination with other elements like gravel, stone, and wood that contribute to a garden’s sensory experience.
Groundcovers, especially between stepping stones, can lend to a variety of ground plane textures. Imagine the feel of soft, cool grass or gatherings of moss under bare feet on a spring morning. Soft, fuzzy perennial Lamb’s Ear in the garden is wonderful to rub between your fingers, as are the leaves of a sage plant. Showy grasses like Hakonechloa or Dwarf Fountain Grass blades are anything but sharp. Get up close and touch the ethereally light, delicate plumes on an ornamental grass when it flowers in the late summer. A mass in the distance is a beautiful visual but there’s nothing like sitting amongst them. Enjoy the grasses from the weathered wood of a favorite garden bench, or planted with a piece of bleached driftwood as a sculptural element to contrast the wispy blades.
We can’t talk about foliage textures without mentioning ferns. There are so many varieties hardy in our area, all of them a textural delight to use in the garden. The fronds of a fern are what we notice first, but get up close and see the curled up fiddleheads (before the frond opens). Even the underside of the fern has something to offer with the clusters of sporangia, usually a contrasting red or brown, especially showy on the evergreen Christmas Fern.
On the opposite side of soft vegetation are the bristly, sharp plants like Agave and Prickly Pear Cactus. Agave is mainly used as an annual or indoor plant here but Yucca is another spiky plant that you can use in the garden and there are many varieties hardy to Long Island. Prickly Pear Cactus is considered hardy but may take a hit in harsh winters. It is best to plant them in a protected, well-drained area if you want them outside. The needles of many conifers also fall into the sharp category such as Blue Spruce. Not only is the color striking but the coarse surface makes these evergreens stand out from softer White Pine and the many textures of arborvitae.
Exfoliating bark on a Crape Myrtle, Paperbark Maple or River Birch adds almost an architectural texture during all seasons. Though they may look very rough to some, they can all seem quite wispy at times. A Japanese Dogwood, Hinoki Cypress or Alaskan Cedar on the other hand, offers a very firm exfoliating bark – not ones you’d want to touch. They are definitely a stronger visual presence in the garden. Then you have the smooth gray bark of a stately Beech tree that resembles a column holding up a canopy.
A garden needs rough and rigid objects to balance the smooth and soft offerings. The obvious rigidity in a landscape is the paved surfaces, but we will go beyond that. Stone walls are classic in a garden as are brick and stone paving. These materials also last a long time in the garden, weathering over the years. Weathering can add to the character of the stone and brick and lend a softer feeling to the aged hardscape. Cast stone and terra cotta planters are another way to bring solid forms into the landscape. Whether a rounded shape or squared off trough, planters provide a solid visual anchor for specialty plantings like summer annuals or winter displays.
Visually and physically speaking, textures in the garden are one of the greatest ways we experience outdoor space. Another major influence is lighting and its counterpart shadows. With the right lighting scheme, not only can a property be used day or night, it can also enhance the beauty of both man and Mother Nature’s architecture. Stay tuned for our next piece on light and shadow in the garden!
Written by Ashley Palko Haugsjaa