Look at your garden and describe what you see.
Of course, there is color and perhaps a bird bath or gazing ball. Maybe you have a few gnomes wandering about or a green man or two handing from a tree or fence. Or perhaps you aren't happy with what you see, but aren't sure how to fix it.
When we look at our gardens, the two main components that catch our eye are color and texture. For the past two weeks, we've discussed color in the garden and how it can be hot, cold, monochromatic, harmonizing or contrasting. Now we need to take a look at texture and see how it affects what we see when we look at our gardens.
When we speak of texture, we are describing the different ways that plants can be seen or felt. Textures can be coarse or fine, large or small and airy or compact. Textures can be perceived visually or by the sense of touch. While most of us have a border of soft, fuzzy lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina), or a patch of hardy prickly pear cactus, this column is devoted to visual texture.
Fine textured plants are those with small or fern-like leaves, such as thyme, boxwood or rue. Fine textured plants also have smaller blossoms, including the pale pink shrub rose variety, "The Fairy," or the wind-dancing blossoms of Gaura lindheimeri. Plants that have small, fine leaves, but grow in dense, compact forms can become coarse-textured simply by virtue of their growth habits.
Using fine-textured plants in the garden creates an illusion of space, making small areas seem larger when mingled with medium or coarse textured plants. Fine-textured plants give a lighter feel to the space. Picture a vase of roses without the fine-texture of baby's breath. Gone is the romantic, ethereal perception of the arrangement. Now you are starting to get the idea of texture.
Most plants are medium textured, such as coneflower, beebalm (monarda), daisies or clematis and can be mingled with fine-textured plants to acquire the visual element you are trying to accomplish. But coarse-textured plants, which include most hosta, cannas, elephant ears (Colocasia) or caladiums offer a tropical feel to a garden. Coarse plants also have large blossoms, such as bearded iris or sunflowers.
Using coarse-textured plants in a garden creates a heavier atmosphere and makes spaces appear smaller. But these plants also grab our attention, as if to stand in front of us and insist that we take notice of their presence.
Using varying foliage textures in the garden is more visually interesting. Planting a space entirely with large-leafed plants can make the garden seem clumsy and off-kilter. Adding a few medium or fine textured plants will soften the area. Think of elephant ears combined with the motion of ornamental grasses waving in the breeze.
Gardening without any fine- or coarse-textured plants can leave a garden looking plain and boring. Nothing much, with the exception of color, offers anything to alter the perception enough to keep the eye moving through the garden without varying foliage textures.
Light and dark also determine texture. Think of an impressionist landscape painting. When the artist brings light into the painting from one side of the canvas, the opposite side appears in shadow. The brush strokes in shaded areas are smaller, and the colors are muted.
In our gardens, shaded or partially shaded areas create a mottled effect. The amount and size of the appearing blotches are affected by the texture of the plants. Fine-textured plants reflect many small blotches, while coarse-textured plants appear as fewer, but larger blotches. To contrast, bright light on our plants will appear to sparkle on fine-textured plants, while sending out glowing rays of light on coarse-textured plants.
Texture also depends on distance. Looking at the plants in our gardens can give us a different textural view whether we are up close or from a distance. Stand close to a waving row of asparagus plants in late summer and you would think you are in a garden of feathers, but back up and the plants all blend together into one tight clump, thereby losing its airy appeal.
Visual texture isn't limited to the plants. We often place taller plants to the back of the garden and smaller ones in front so they can easily be seen, but our views are also altered by the hardscape we choose to use. Hardscape pertains to any structures, garden art or pathways that mingle with our plants and draw our eyes throughout the space. Garden textures also change according to the season. By the time winter arrives, we have only graying trunks, dried stalks and a pale shrubs to get us through to spring. Textures can be very important this time of year. Try a few trees with peeling bark, such as river birch, mountain ash or paperbark maple (Acer griseum). Red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) is known for its winter interest because this plant's gray-brown branches turn brilliant red in winter. Instead of cutting back all of those dead flower stalks, leave a few upright to collect puddles of snow high above the ground.
It is difficult to make a mistake with texture in any garden. Many of us can simply look at an area and know that it needs something extra to make it more visually appealing. But if you just can't put your finger on what that might be, perhaps it isn't another clump of Black-eyed Susans after all. It might just be something with a bit of texture.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.