Even when drained of its vibrant summer colors, the winter garden can still be a visually interesting landscape. Leaves, bark, berries, and seed heads add variety and texture to the subdued winter palette. In fact, you’ll discover that adding these textural elements to your garden enhances its beauty in every season of the year. Here are some ways to begin:
Recognize the need. Think about texture when considering plant combinations—whether for a large garden, a small outdoor setting, or an ensemble of plants in a single container. Brightly colored flowers are what capture our attention, but they’re often temporary. They’re captivating for a few weeks and then gone. Textures, on the other hand, are part of a garden’s framework, defining its appearance year-round.
Train the eye. The roles that textural elements play in the garden aren’t always immediately apparent. It often takes a second look to recognize their impact. Rough, coarse textures tend to create an informal style, while fine, smooth textures create a formal, elegant, subdued mood. Dark, glossy, broadleaf evergreens such as Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta, Zones 7 to 9) reflect light; the loose, feathery inflorescences of ornamental grasses like ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Zones 3 to 9) absorb it.
Study the textures in your garden and list adjectives to describe them: lacy, shiny, leathery, frothy, smooth, coarse, and so on. After you’ve compiled your list, consider which textures are missing.
Create contrast. To heighten the visual interest in your garden, juxtapose different textures. The more extreme the contrast, the more you’ll notice the texture of each plant. For example, pair the lacy, finely cut foliage of ‘Crimson Queen’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’, Zones 6 to 8) with the broad, puckered leaves of ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta (Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’, Zones 3 to 9).
Flowers, too, can add textural interest. For a beautiful contrast, pair the airy white blossoms of Diamond Frost euphorbia (Euphorbia ‘Inneuphdia’, Zones 8 to 10) with the hefty blooms of peonies, bearded iris, or large Oriental lilies. For me, a pleasing mix is about one-third fine-textured plants with two-thirds medium to bold leaves and blooms.
Look for structural textures. As you consider the texture of plants, also think about your house, garage, walls, fences, and other structures. Bolster visual interest by placing bold foliage in front of smooth stucco, or finely cut leaves against coarse stone.
Play with dimensions. Texture alters the perception of distance in the garden. Dark green, tightly clipped plants such as hollies, laurels, and boxwoods lack transparency or depth, so they make a space appear smaller. Loose, open-foliage plants like sweetspire (Itea spp., Zones 6 to 9), weigela (Weigela spp., Zones 3 to 10), and butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii, Zones 6 to 9) can make the same area feel larger because we can see through them. This technique also works in a flower bed.
Bold-texture plants placed in front of finer textures create an illusion of depth. The plants with distinctive leaves present an immediate focus for the eye and seem closer, while the more delicate foliage appears airy and farther away.
Consider the light. The texture of plants also affects the amount of illumination in a garden. Trees with large, coarse leaves and open canopies create a dance of light and shadows more than those with smaller leaves and a denser habit. Waxy surfaces like glossy privet (Ligustrum lucidum, Zones 8 to 10) bounce light around, while the needles of brushy conifers contain it. This interplay of shadows and sunlight brings a heightened sense of animation to the garden.
Textures to Try
To go beyond a simple color scheme in your garden, juxtapose plants with varying textures.
Here are a few to try:
||Elephant’s ear (Colocasia spp., Zones 9 to 11), hosta (Hosta spp., Zones 3 to 8), hydrangea (Hydrangea spp., Zones 4 to 10), canna (Canna spp., Zones 8 to 11)
||Diamond Frost euphorbia (Euphorbia ‘Inneuphdia’, Zones 8 to 10), cosmos (Cosmos spp.), artemesia (Artemisia spp., Zones 3 to 9), gaura (Gaura lindheimeri, Zones 6 to 9)
||Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, Zones 4 to 9), yarrow (Achillea spp., Zones 3 to 9), lambs’ ear (Stachys byzantia, Zones 4 to 8), Irish moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’, Zones 4 to 7)
||Yucca (Yucca spp., Zones 5 to 10), globe thistle (Echinops spp., Zones 3 to 9), mahonia (Mahonia spp., Zones 6 to 10)
||Various ornamental grasses, cabbage tree (Cordyline spp., Zones 9 to 11), iris (Iris spp., Zones 3 to 10)
||Various sedums (Sedum spp., Zones 3 to 10), magnolia (Magnolia spp., Zones 3 to 9), boxwood (Buxus spp., Zones 5 to 9)
P. Allen Smith (www.pallensmith.com) is a garden designer, host of two national TV programs, a regular guest on the “Today” show, and author of P. Allen Smith’s Living in the Garden Home (Clarkson Potter, 2007), the newest book in the Garden Home series.