The difference between a well textured garden and one that is not, is much like the difference I see when I view my garden with my glasses on… and with them off.
Contrary to my optometrist’s recommendation, I don’t usually wear glasses during my day-to-day activities – except for television viewing and driving. So it is that every time I climb aboard my little red wagon (station wagon that is), the first thing I do is don my specs, and immediately I notice my garden leap out at me.
When I observe my garden without my glasses, I see colour, I see form, I even see contrasting fine and coarse textures – but there is very little depth or detail. However, when bespectacled, I see the finer details; layers of shadow and light, rough texture, smooth texture, shiny surfaces, matte surfaces, ruffles and ridges, creases and edges – a well textured garden. A sensuous garden even.
To achieve this end one must learn to see and appreciate the assorted textural treats that each plant brings to the garden party. As we view the various parts of a plant (leaves, flowers, bark etc.), we subconsciously imagine how they might be experienced by our other senses; how they might feel to the touch – soft, smooth, buttery, waxy, fuzzy; how they might smell, or even taste, and in so doing our visual experience is enhanced.
All plants, and all of their constituent parts, have texture – some of course more interesting than others. For many plants it is the foliage that has the most notable texture, others it is their bark, or their seedheads, their flowers, or even specific parts of their flowers that provide the textural appeal.
Plant textures play off each other and their surroundings, offering layers of subtle beauty and visual depth.
In my last post I discussed the importance of using fine texture to build volume, and coarse texture for contrast and emphasis. In this post I’ll look more closely at the visual and tactile characteristics of plant surfaces.
Rough or Smooth?
Plant surfaces can be either rough or smooth. In attempting to provide basic definitions for rough texture and smooth texture, I’ve found myself stalled – every time I start to formulate a definition I realize it isn’t as simple as the designer-speak I spout off to my students in design class. The simple definition for rough plant texture is anything with an irregular surface – this means the presence of fine hairs, scales, thorns, lumps or any other protuberance. Smooth texture is of course just the opposite – a regular surface with no protrusions.
However let’s look at a Hosta leaf – a classic example of smooth texture. But many Hosta leaves have very conspicuous veining, producing a somewhat puckered appearance. The leaf surface is still considered smooth – there are no actual protuberances, but perceptually the surface could be described as irregular.
The foliage of the polar bear willow (Salix salicola) on the other hand, is covered with many tiny hairs, resulting in a uniformly fuzzy surface – indeed it begs to be caressed.
Some would argue that the words “rough texture” couldn’t possibly describe these leaves that look and feel so soft and downy.
So you see my conundrum here?
Well it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that you recognize the basic textural differences between rough and smooth, and understand how the eye experiences them – light is refracted and reflected, or in laymen’s terms, bent and bounced off, surfaces that are irregular, differently than smooth surfaces. This creates changes in perceived colour as well as subtle areas of light and dark.
Shiny vs. Matte
Smooth texture is further categorized as either shiny or matte. Shiny surfaces reflect light, thus attract more attention – just ask a child. Conversely, matte surfaces absorb light and tend to blend more into their background.
We can keep this in mind when fashioning areas of emphasis or dominance in a garden composition; for example, foliage features – while coarse texture will be the initial determinant of a plant’s dominance, a plant with leaves that are both large and shiny will be a real standout.
Bear in mind that too many plants with shiny leaf surfaces, can be both distracting and disunifying – particularly if the leaves are large. In my last post I mentioned that planting Heuchera in my garden had provided some visual relief from the excess of fine texture. What I didn’t mention was that after deciding the big glossy Heuchera leaves were indeed a welcome addition, I made the typical “the-only-thing-better-than-a-good-thing-is-more-of-a-good-thing” mistake, and added a whole bunch more plants with big shiny leaves – eventually creating a bed that consisted almost entirely of coarse, shiny texture. During the course of my design study, as I began to understand the role of texture in my own garden, I surmised that “too much coarse texture” had now supplanted the “too much fine texture” scenario, but it was a while later before I figured out that all those shiny surfaces had amplified the problem.
As always, contrast and balance are key – be sure to include plants with smooth matte surfaces, some shiny surfaces, fuzzy, wrinkled, spiny, furrowed……..
Mother Nature often brings her own contrasting textures to the party in a single plant; for example, foliage may have a glossy surface, and flowers have a lustreless surface, sometimes with a bit of nap, like velvet or nubuck.
On the Edge
Variations in surface edges also impact textural appearance – smooth surfaces with edges that are ruffled, serrated, fringed etc. will seem more irregular, and finer textured as well. Keep this in mind when using plants that exhibit these characteristics.
As Time Goes By
Plant texture changes as a plant goes through its seasonal cycles and its life cycle – new growth may be smooth and shiny and older growth, duller or rougher. The formation of deadheads, seedheads or berries adds a new textural dimension as the season progresses. Leaving these to develop may be desirable for visual effect, but depending on the plant, sometimes removal is better. And of course when woody plants enter winter dormancy, most will lose their leaves, exposing their textural bones.
Texture in the garden has so much more impact than we realize – as I examine my own garden I recognize there are still areas that could benefit from some ‘texturizing’. As I wrap up this post I recognize there is still more I could add, like why have certain plants evolved with particular texture – Mother Nature has her reasons you know. But alas that will have to be the subject of another post.
So when you shop for new plant material, or play with what you already have, take note of what each has brought to the party before adjusting or expanding the menu.Bon Appétit, Sue
- Weaving Your Garden – the Importance of Plant Texture (notanothergardeningblog.com)
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.
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If you enjoy gardening, you’ll love this article. How to easily prepare for dynamic, organic crops: http://68anda6pack.com/2013/07/12/forking-good-exercise/
Thanks – I’ll be sure to check it out!
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The Old Dog
You always give me so much to think about… going to find my shovel now 😉
Happy to provide you with continued food for thought! Don’t work too hard.
An excellent article to get me thinking in terms of texture for my yard. Thank you Sue. I continue to enjoy and benefit from your posts.
Good to hear from you and thanks as always for your kind comments. Glad you’ve been able to work in your own yard this year instead of chained to your design software – I hope you’re doing a little designing on the side though?
Keep in touch,
I like the hosta plant and plan to separate mine so they can multiply by next year. They love the shade.
Hosta is indeed the king of shade plants. I wish they weren’t so susceptible to hail damage though – after a hailstorm they can look pretty much like chopped lettuce.
Thanks for stopping by,
You always have well written, wonderful advice that is very helpful to many. The highlight on interesting bark is one people often forget.
Thanks as always for your kind comments.
Tree bark is hugely visible and you’re right, oft overlooked – it’s especially important in the winter.
I love your garden and I love your pictures. What camera do you use? Those pictures are so sharp and look almost unreal.
Thanks so much for your comment. I usually use my Lumix DMC LX5 – being a point and shoot it has its limitations but it produces good clear shots, excellent colour and is very lightweight, hence is my go-to camera for most garden photography.
Thanks for stopping by,
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