April 5, 2013

Neil Sperry: Playing with texture in the garden

Achieving the perfect mix of bold ‘statement' plants and fine, airy ones takes time and knowledge

Rants, raves, reviews and resources for Dallas-Fort Worth parents

It's almost like eating pizza without toppings -- landscaping without tapping into textures, that is. Every gardener thinks about flowers. Many think about growth forms. Some even remember to ask how tall and how wide a plant will grow. But very few give even passing thought to the textures that plants and hardscaping elements bring to their surroundings. We're going to do that right now.

Texture might be described as the "visual weight" of a plant or an object. That's where we pick up terms such as "heavy-" or "light-textured." Plants with large leaves are labeled "heavy-" or "bold-textured." That list is lengthy, but just as a few examples, bur oaks, elephant ears, fatsias, oakleaf hydrangeas and southern magnolias all are visually heavy in a landscape. Ferns, dwarf yaupon hollies, nandinas, junipers, liriope and ornamental grasses bring light, or fine, textures. Some might describe them as "airy."

Every last thing that you add to your landscape has its own inherent texture. Boulders, concrete pedestals and flagstone walks all are obviously heavy-textured, while wrought iron and fine gravel bring a much lighter feel.

A plant's growth form also plays a part in determining its textural value to your garden. Unless leaf size or bark character trump the growth form, rounded and oval plants have neutral textures. Weeping and arching plants have a lighter texture (except for weeping mulberries, where leaf size predominates). Decidedly upright plants such as columnar Italian cypress, Skyrocket junipers and Will Fleming yaupon hollies are far more dominant in their gardens. Even though the leaves of all three are tiny, the plants' textural value is bold, giving them a heavy feel visually.

As with any kind of decorating, you want to use a nice blend of a variety of textures. Use bold-textured plants and products to draw attention to an otherwise uninteresting area. Large fountains and urns become the focal points of their surroundings. Stone walls draw a definitive boundary. They stop your eye's flow across the landscape.

Use fine-textured elements to make a small garden appear larger. Cover a bank with a trailing groundcover such as Asian jasmine or Tam junipers. Use arching Italian jasmine or Sea Green juniper as a soft backdrop to other plantings. Japanese maples add color to a shaded garden without shrinking its apparent size.

Trunk and bark play a part in determining a plant's textural contribution to a landscape. Slick-trunked crape myrtles, yaupon hollies and Texas persimmon give a lighter feel. Heavily fissured barks of eastern persimmons, bur oaks and cottonwoods pour in more drama. Bark may not be something you've spent much time considering, but it's deciduous plants' main visual contribution for several months every winter.

One of the really effective ways to show that you fully understand this entire topic is to use contrasting textures side-by-side. Mondograss is handsome next to Carissa hollies, English ivy or rounded river rock. Or, if you're using mondograss as a replacement for turf due to excessive shading, contrast its texture by planting oakleaf hydrangeas or Mary Nell hollies within the bed.

People often ask for the best flowering and variegated plants for shady parts of their gardens, and I do list some of the best types in reply. That list would include annuals such as wax and Dragon Wing begonias, caladiums and coleus, and perennials such as ajuga, oxalis, Texas Gold columbines, summer phlox and hellebores.

I don't go much further in my reply, however, without describing a landscape I visited 25 years ago. It was the home of one of Texas' finest landscape architects, the late Richard Myrick of Dallas. As I walked toward his door, I realized that his entire landscape was done featuring green plants and their endless variety of textures. I told Dick what a lesson he had taught me, and hopefully I've now passed on the works from that master.

Have fun this spring, as you "texturize" your gardens. You'll be amazed at what a difference you can make.

Neil Sperry publishes "Gardens" magazine and hosts "Texas Gardening" from 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.

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