Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Speaking Of Texture


Texture refers to the quality or nature of a surface.  Any surface.  The texture of a marble sculpture might be described as smooth and voluptuous.  A china plate has a hard and shiny texture that repels water.  A lake might be as smooth as glass one day, and choppy the next. A woven fabric can be nubby and open textured, or silky.  This farfugium leaf is a study in contrasting textures.  The body of the leaf is smooth to the touch, and strikingly veined and shiny to the eye.  The edges of the leaves are markedly ruffled; the leaf edges are sharp.  Were I ever to eat farfugium, I imagine its texture would be juicy and crunchy.

panicum virgatum

Texture engages the senses. You can see a surface. This panic grass is primarily and busily vertical, with an occasional and beautifully draping stem. You can feel the surface.  Ornamental grass leaves can cut your hands-the edges of the blades are sharp!  Feeling that texture can be irritating.  Animals who eat grass-who knows how they would describe the texture.  I would guess it is chewy and stringy.  Raw carrots are as remarkable for their crunch as much as their taste.  Oysters and okra are slick, and slide down easily.  Bread can be doughy, or dense.  Or light, as in a souffle.  Texture can be tasted.  It can be seen.  It can be felt.  Heavy clay soil can be greasy.  Sandy soil is gritty.  Soil loaded with compost has such texture that air has an easy time finding a home in it.  I cannot imagine how many adjectives exist to describe various surfaces-it would be a daunting task to make a list.

Suffice it to say that there are a multitude of utterly unique and enchanting textures in plants.  Salvia argentea is notable for its felted leaves.  It is the devil to grow, but its surface, its texture, is utterly unique.  I have no luck with this plant in the ground, and only sporadic luck with it in containers, but I keep trying.  The texture of the leaves reminds me of fur and felt both.

This pilea involucrata “Moon Valley” is noted for its markedly fissured leaves.  The leaf is rough to the touch.  It is interesting to the eye.  Designing a container, or a garden, or a landscape, asks for all kinds of attention beyond the horticulture. The design details can endow a planting with a special beauty.  There is color to contend with.  There is volume and mass.  There is line, and form.  And there is texture.


I do not grow vegetables to eat.  But I do grow them to look at.  This ruffly leaf lettuce satisfies my eye’s demand for interesting texture, just as much as I admire the color.

lime club moss

Selaginella, or club moss, has dimuitive leaves.  I would say it is very textural-the surface is lively.  But given that it is a very small plant that hugs the surface of the soil, I would describe its texture as densely uniform.  The idea here?  Small leaves have an entirely different texture than big ones.  The relationship of one texture to another adds another layer of interest to any planting.

On a stormy night, my boxwood read as a mass-the individual texture of all of those individual leaves is not so apparent.  The roses are a lot of fluff, a lot of stalky canes-the blooms are soft to the touch. The roof is smooth from this distance; the clouds have a lot of color, a little bit of volume, and a weighless appearance.  Many textures are apparent here. The relationship of one textural element to another is what makes for a design party.


A lanmdscape is comprised of many different elements-each of these elements have a surface and texture all their own.  The relationship between distinctive and individual surfaces is what insures an enduring visual interest in a landscape.

Every surface here is hard-as in impermeable, or shiny.  The textures are smooth and uniform.  My client is asking-what would you do here?  Perhaps, a contrasting texture!

This essay was written in conjunction with all of the other members of the Garden Designer’s Roundtable-be sure to check out all of their postings!


Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA


The contrast between Milo’s white fur, and the mud he’s been running through and spattering all over it is quite spectacular, is it not? I admit I could not take my eyes off of him. Contrast is all about those elements that are set in strong opposition to one another.  In his case, clean and pristine white versus mud-dirty black. Contrast can be expressed in many ways-big versus small, textured versus smooth, light and dark.  Relationships that emphasize differences are what creates contrast. In any case contrast is like a tuba in a brass band-oom pah pah.

Contrast creates interest and excitement.  The figures in this plaque were carved in such relief that they almost leap off the wall.  The physical depth from the back plate to the outstretched hand of the most forward cherub is great-and even more greatly exxagerated by the late day sun.  The slanting sun makes the darks very dark, and the lights almost white. There are not so many shades of grey.  Like a silhouette, black and white makes the ultimate statement about contrast.    

Color contrasts make for lively compositions.  Purple and yellow together is a loud conversation across the color wheel. The white alyssum is a contrast in texture with the smooth textures of the pansy petals and leaves; there is a second conversation going on here.  White contrasts dramatically with any intense color, and attracts attention from the eye at a distance.  Small compositions can have big impact given a dose of white.  This little eight inch pot has a lot going on for its size.

Metallic or shiny surfaces reflect light.  But in this case, the contrast is relatively low.  There are blacks, and shiny silver in this composition-but lots of grey tones in between.  The eye moves from white to black with a lot of steps in between. This picture is easy on the eye, as the contrast is low. 

These electrically fiery red tulips set aginst their cooly green foliage is anything but calm and soothing.  This has the same impact as a thunderclap right outside your bedroom window in the middle of the night.  I wouldn’t anticipate anyone not following the contrast analysis here.  The important part is choosing great contrast where it will be effective in a garden, and making a conscious decision for quiet where the garden benefits from quiet. 

 Subtle contrasts are not always so easy to spot-or plan for.  Huge swaths of impatiens have cache from their mass, but they also may have that air of a shopping center planting.  A group of shade tolerant plants providing contrasting textures, sizes and colors can be vastly more interesting. It’s important to pay attention to the stems and foliage that come with a flower-they are better than 50% of the visual output of the plant.  Liriopes in pots-upright and grassy in texture, look great with green dichondra-that silvery round leaved trailer.  They contrast in every way except their color.  The fingered leaves of hellebores are all the better for a pairing with sweet woodriff.  Their overall shape is very similar; their size differential is dramatically contrasting.

Some contrasting elements are slight-but enough to make a big difference.  These V shaped steel pots are so much more striking for the steel bands that describe their shape. The banding catches the light, and solidly finishes the form. 

I have a particular fondness for a little color sass in the spring-for all the obvious reasons.  They make a brave face when it’s still very cold here.  I won’t want yellow and purple in my summer garden, but this kind of one-two punch is perfect for April. I’ve had temperatures in the 60’s the past two days-what a lovely contrast to my winter.