Whether we notice it or not, texture is all around us. When we were newborns, we would touch whatever we saw. We learned the textures of objects through touch. Often our first reaction to a new thing is still to reach out and touch it.
This is true for gardeners too. When seeing a new plant, we commonly reach out to touch it’s leaves.
Texture is one of those words that has a lot of meanings. One is the “way that something feels when you touch it.” Feels refers to it’s smoothness, roughness, softness, etc.
Not only do we feel texture, we see it. We learn what rough textured stone feels and looks like. After petting a few dogs, we learn to recognize the soft feel of a dogs fur coat just by seeing it.
Not only do rocks and dogs fur have texture. All things do. When we look at a garden scene we see plants, patios, paths, and other parts that have a color, form, and texture. Texture is not something we consciously think of. We do however recognize it subconsciously.
When we see texture in the garden, we view it as one texture compared to another. Texture is fairly easy to see when comparing the leaves of plant material. A large boldly textured Hosta leaf compared to the fine texture of a fern is an example of strongly contrasting textures.
A garden of colors only is limited
When most gardeners are shopping for plants for their garden, they are often looking at flowers. Specifically flower color.
Mixing tones and shades of different colored flowers is an art form. It can also be a lot of fun.
While this warm garden scene may not appeal to everybody, most will agree it is pleasant enough.
What happens to our opinion of this garden scene if we removed the color?
Why would we do that?
For one thing, when the sun starts to go down, the color we see in our yards is removed. So a garden after dusk will look a lot less colorful then one an hour earlier.
Also flowers don’t last on most plants, so we are usually left with a garden with less color than when it is at peak flower.
Here is our same scene with the color removed.
What do you think?
Looks pretty uninspiring. Actually to me it just looks busy.
All of the plants have small leaves and flowers. These small plant parts all have a fine texture.
Different textures of garden plants
It’s often easier when working with plant textures to group them into categories. That way we can select and arrange plants from these different categories. Doing this can help uscreate an interesting textural variety and flow.
Plant textures can be grouped into three basic categories
We can get a bit more refined if we add intermediate categories like Medium Fine and Medium Coarse. These indicate textures that fall between the different categories.
How leaf size impacts plant texture
We usually look at the leaf size to determine it’s texture during the growing season. It seems past associations make us associate larger leaves with a coarser texture. While smaller leaves are considered to be finer textures.
Ornamental grasses and ferns would be an example of a fine or medium fine plant texture.
Oakleaf hydrangea and Canna lilies are large leaf examples of coarse textured plants.
Other factors that influence plant texture
It’s not only leaf size that makes us think of a plant texture as coarse or fine. Its also how widely spaced the leaves are from one another.
For instance, large leaves that are widely spaced appear coarser in appearance then large leaves that are closely spaced.
The reason is that when larger leaves are closer together they overlap each other. This overlapping causes us to not see the large size of each individual leaf, so we in effect don’t see how large the leaves are.
How glossy or dull a leaf is impacts texture
Besides leaf size and how far apart they are spaced, texture is also impacted by how shinny or dull a leaf is.
Glossy leaf surfaces reflect light in different directions. This gives the effect of even smaller leaf surfaces and therefore makes the leaf look finer textured then if it was dull textured.
Dull leaf surfaces absorb light without giving off the effect of highlights. This causes us to see the whole leaf as one which results in the leaf appearing coarser. An example of this would be the oakleaf hydrangea shown four photos above.
White on the undersides or edges of leaves
When plant leaves have very light or white colored undersides, this increases the light that is reflected from that part of the leaf.
This has the effect similar to the glossy leaf of making the leaves appear to be smaller. This results in an overall texture that appears finer.
The white poplar (Populus alba) is the classic example of a tree with a white underside.
Plants that have white variegated leave margins create a similar effect. An example is the variegated winter creeper with it’s white margins.
As you can see there are many factors that impact how we “read” a plant’s texture during the growing season.
Plants that shed their foliage in the winter will have different textures when they are leafless. This texture will be determined by the plant parts you see in the winter, the stems and trunks. We will look at that another time.
Next time, we will look at how we can use texture in designing planting combinations that are compelling whether they have flowers in color or not.