Little children are attracted to bright, shiny objects that move rapidly. Big children (who garden) aren't a lot different.
If it's colorful, and if it grows quickly, we want it in our yard. And, therein lies one of our first mistakes as planners of fine landscapes. Other features are just as important, but we give them no thought. Two that are most often overlooked are "growth form" and "texture."
A plant's growth form refers to the way it arranges itself in its surroundings. Most especially, it refers to its branching structures. Let's examine the forms, as well as the impacts each has on its garden.
Rounded: This is the classical form of the greatest number of landscaping plants. That means that it also looks most natural to our eyes. These are the trees and shrubs that grow about as tall as they grow wide, and that do so without formal shearing. They make up a majority of most simple, yet elegant landscape designs.
Oval: You might call these plants "egg-shaped." They also have a natural-looking growth form, so they're comfortable alongside the rounded types. In fact, the two forms are almost interchangeable in their landscaping statements.
Vertical: With these columnar plants, we really begin to add drama to our gardens. Their impact can be stunning, or it can quickly become overpowering. Use them as accents where the attention is really needed, but be cautious in using them in open spaces, where they might take the form of giant green fences.
Spreading: It maybe an odd way of thinking, but if you took a vertical plant and laid it on its side, it would become horizontal. Somehow, it also would lose much of its dramatic flair. Spreading plants have a softer, friendlier feel in the landscape. They usually grow twice as wide as they do tall, so they cover areas well without blocking views.
Trailing: These are our ground covers. They're vining plants that haven't yet found a vertical support, so they've resigned themselves to covering bare ground with their stems and leaves. We use them on slopes, beneath large trees, and in other settings where grass is difficult to grow or maintain. They're a very useful growth form for gardening.
Vining: Conversely, when a clinging, twining or leaning plant finds a support, it quickly becomes a vine. These cover vertical surfaces just as well as the columnar plants mentioned above, but without any of the visual shock of having tall, slender green rocket stalks. Vining plants perform many of the functions of shrubs but without taking up nearly as much lateral space in the landscape.
Weeping: Least common of all plant growth forms, weeping plants can either be graceful, even elegant (in example, our short-lived weeping willows), or they can be visually heavy and prominent (weeping mulberries, weeping yaupon). Arching plants like Italian jasmine also fit into this group.
Surprisingly few gardeners think about texture when they start adding new plants to their surroundings. That's really sad, because texture goes a long way in determining the statement a plant makes to its surroundings.
Texture is a measure of many factors, including leaf size, surface and color, bark and branching, growth form and overall plant size. Small leaves are generally finer-textured. Strongly colored gray or purple leaves give the implication of a heavier texture. Plants with soft, fuzzy leaves have the perception of being fine-textured, while leathery leaves with prickles and spines are much bolder in look.
The finest gardens showcase a variety of textures. Use coarse textures to add impact, to make a drab, dull corner stand out. Use fine textures to soften a harsh wall or to give visual interest and transition within a part of your garden.
The fact is that you can develop a lovely landscape using nothing but a collection of textures and growth forms, even without resorting to color at all. Look around you at what others have created, and start collecting your thoughts. You'll surprise yourself with all the variety you can create.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening radio show from 8-11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays on KRLD//1080 AM. Reach him during those hours at 214-787-1080.