In a garden, there are two types of texture: tactile and visual. While it's certainly fun to
have touchable plants (lamb's ears comes to mind), the topic of texture is primarily about
pattern and form.
Visual textures run the gamut, but generally they can be divided into three basic categories
— fine, medium, and coarse or bold (the equivalent, really, of small, medium, and large).
Foliage, flowers, bark, and even branch structure all contribute to the textural makeup of a
The goal is to choreograph a variety of textures to give the garden energy and avoid
monotony. Even a mixed container should include something delicate, something of medium
texture, and something bold — like alyssum, pansies, and ornamental kale, or asparagus fern,
angelonia, and geranium.
By juxtaposing different textures each can be enhanced, rather than competing for attention
or getting lost in visual noise. For instance, a cluster of elephant ears has real punch in a
bed of salvias, coneflowers, and daylilies; and frothy baby's breath sparkles beside a
big-flowered hibiscus. A mass of only elephant's ears or baby's breath, or combining them with
similar textures like cannas or coreopsis, lends them much less impact than when they're paired
with contrasting textures.
A small landscape should be weighted with fine and medium textures since they can make a
space seem larger. Bold plants can make a space seem smaller, so in a pocket garden, too many
of them can bring on feelings of claustrophobia! A greater number of big, dramatic plants can
be accommodated in a large garden, where they will be in scale and have plenty of "room to
breathe." When including finer textured plants in a large border, make sure to plant them in
masses so they don't get lost.
But take care not to be overzealous with a particular type of texture. Though fine- and
medium-textured plants are what knit a garden together, a border filled with only those can
look busy and lack focus, and too many bold plants can be overpowering.
Interestingly the roles of focal point and backdrop can be played equally well by both fine-
and bold-textured plants. It's all a matter of good pairings and clever positioning. A
variegated hosta pops when planted in front of Japanese painted ferns, and conversely a group
of painted ferns sings when backed by lime-green or blue hostas.
It's often assumed that only bold-textured plants bring drama, but delicate plants are
equally up to that challenge. What is more dramatic than a mass of thread-leaf bluestar turning
brilliant yellow in autumn? Even a small, dainty plant can be made eye-catching, like a mat of
baby's tears punctuated by tufts of black mondo grass. Be open to the intrinsic beauty of each
plant and how best to show it off.
And don't underestimate the added interest of light and shadow playing across different
textures. This can enhance the delicate quality of fine-textured plants such as ornamental
grasses, as well as the architecture of bold plants like agaves. When picking planting
locations, think about how the sunlight hits the garden during the day and how you can use that
to enhance the texture of individual plants.
A few other bold-textured plants are aloe, yucca, Ligularia, caladium, arum, banana,
hellebore, and Rodgersia. Medium-textured plants include Heuchera, perennial geranium,
snapdragon, petunia, lobelia, and penstemon. For fine-textured plants, look to Jacob's ladder,
artemisia, wild bleeding heart, Russian sage, Caryopteris, gaura, and astilbe.
Even an edible garden can have a good balance, using dill, fennel, lavender, asparagus, and
thyme for fine texture; sage, peppers, tomatoes, and basil for medium texture; and chard,
collards, okra, and lettuce for bold texture.