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Lights, Camera, Action!

By Bob Byers

Cut! If you can’t mentally picture a garden that inspires you, a script if you will, it’s important to search magazines, seek out gardens to visit when you travel, and look at photos of other gardens to find that perfect inspiration. Then you can get started. Include practical concerns like shade, soil, and moisture that will determine good plant choices.

Once you have a good handle on those, what’s next? Begin with the basics: form, color, line and texture. Cut! What again? Yes, there’s something really important to consider. These characteristics apply to every single item in your garden and interact continuously with each other. Just like in the movies, not every actor can be the star. A well-conceived design has a few key elements, protagonists if you will, and a big supporting cast.

Start by deciding what design elements will be your “stars” in each garden area (color, for instance), letting it really shine while other elements are assigned supporting roles. My favorite way to achieve an elegant, sophisticated look is by keeping color and line consistent, using form subtly as a secondary accent, and really letting texture take center stage.

But what exactly does texture mean in garden design? Visual texture is best understood as the relative tactile character and size of parts to one another and their setting. Are leaves and flowers small compared to the overall scene (fine textured, e.g. ferns and mosses), or large (coarse textured, e.g. elephant ears (Colocasia spp.)? Most plants fall somewhere in the middle with medium texture (coneflowers and forsythia). Paving, garden art, fences, arbors and everything else in the hardscape also lend texture to the mix.

Ambience, important in every scene, is easily created with good textural choices. Use lots of very large leaves with upright forms like bananas and taro to set the stage for a luau, with all of the tropical flavor implied. Or, let fine textures and low spreading forms transport you to the quiet contemplation of a Zen garden.
Density, fuzzy or smooth surfaces, and solid as opposed to segmented or divided elements affect texture, too. Remember, when choosing which textures to highlight, you only need a few stars that really grab your attention.

In the process, you create sense of place. It’s your stage, the perfect garden setting for your lifestyle. Traditionally, sense of place speaks to local surroundings, but there’s nothing wrong with creating a character that’s quite different to match your home or tastes. Just do it deliberately.

Do you struggle with a small garden? Trick visitors to make it feel bigger. Garden is theater after all. When details disappear in the distance, it’s a visual clue that those elements are far away. Medium textures in the foreground that transition into a background of fine foliage artificially recreate that effect, making your space feel larger. To make a large space feel more intimate, just reverse things to draw the farthest points nearer.

But most gardeners look to texture to add interest to borders. This is where the notion of a few stars and lots of supporting characters really comes in handy. Good border design depends on many elements, but getting texture right is crucial. The majority of border plants are medium textured, so coarse and fine ones provide great accents.

Sometimes tactile texture can really add interest, even if people just look and don’t touch. The amazingly textured fruit of this milkweed relative (Gymphocarpus physocarpus) is a real showstopper everywhere it’s planted.

For borders focused on color, tone down texture and form to avoid chaos since too many design elements fight for attention. A few bold hostas for interest and patches of tiny-leaved mosses filling edges let your color scheme shine without distraction.

But if you love an elegant monochrome, let textures provide pizazz. Try a bed of delicate Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) with a castor bean (Ricinus communis), a large ceramic pot, or a landscape boulder as a focal point. Texture creates interest and richness when properly applied. In particular, different textures can move elements to the front of your design or send them to the back. Bold textures, especially if coupled with a clear, simple shape, will advance to the foreground in your design. As you might expect, fine textures recede, particularly if dark in color. Use texture to advantage bringing accents to the forefront or adding depth with infill.

Setting the Stage with Texture 

Simple guidelines like the rule of thirds help get things right. Divide landscape elements into three textural groups: coarse, medium and fine. Pick one that fits your script such as fine textures for a tranquil, peaceful look. Use delicate beauties in approximately two-thirds of your space (think effect – exact calculations aren’t important). Mix and match coarse and medium texture for the remaining third. In other words, fill the bulk of the design with one base texture while others provide accents and interest. Pair the same color or form with one texture throughout and your design will deliver a real punch.

Don’t forget a hierarchy of accents. Each garden space should have one thing that clearly takes center stage. Whether an Italian tiered fountain for a formal garden, a spectacular Japanese maple for a woodland garden, or that massive vase floating above a sea of bluestar, it should immediately draw everyone’s attention.

That primary accent piece should be relatively large or different in some way from the rest of the scene. Texture can do this beautifully. Think of the impact you could create with a giant umbrella plant (Darmera peltata) in a mass planting of fine textured ferns. Or, what about a single, cut-leaf sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’) among those typical medium textures? Either creates a stunning focal point: Everyone will notice as intended.

For a smaller space or a really clean look, that may be all you need. However, most of us will want some secondary points of interest in each garden as well. And by now, you know what to do! Remember, it’s about choosing your focus and sticking with it. When texture is singing the lead, color, line, and form need to back off into harmony parts and vice versa. The stage is set and it’s time to get started. Action!

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