Landscapes with a Tapestry of Textures

Landscapes with a Tapestry of Textures

It’s the middle of winter, and your landscape has settled into a sleepy dormant period. Deciduous trees and shrubs, now barren of leaves, show their skeletal twigs, branches and trunks. Conifers as well as evergreen trees and shrubs now hold court with their greenery. While the winter dormant season might give you the gardening blahs, it is also a great time to evaluate the “bones” of your landscape.

To start, take a good look at your yard from some of the windows in your home. Then go out to the street and view your yard from that angle. What grabs your attention? Is there anything interesting or inspiring from those views? Later in the year, after new growth resumes, you can take another look at your yard from those same viewpoints. What catches your eye now? This simple method can help you consider ways to enhance the appearance of your yard. Perhaps take some photos and notes when looking at your yard to help your memory.

Last winter’s storm Uri probably took a toll on some of the plants in your yard. Both new and established trees and shrubs might have been partially damaged or outrightly killed. At my home in Tyler, many “evergreen” azaleas lost all their foliage, and although most survived, some still have lingering symptoms of dying branches and chlorotic foliage. I’m taking this opportunity to reevaluate the look of my landscape and take advantage of some of the newer plants that have come on the market in recent years since my initial plantings.

One design principle I’d like to encourage you to consider, whether you are redoing your yard or just wanting to jazz it up a little, is to think about the various textures that make up your garden. I do not mean tactile texture, but visual texture. For example, do all the shrubs in your yard have approximately the same leaf shape and size? Horticulturist Doug Welsh used to say that if you touch the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb, that mimics the shape and size of the foliage of most shrubs in a typical landscape with no leaf variety.

Here is a definition for texture that I found in an old Sunset Landscaping Illustrated: “Every plant has a distinctive texture or visual surface created by the size and shape of its leaves,” and how they are arranged on a plant. Visual texture might be a little difficult to define, but perhaps some words might help. Bold or delicate. Bright or subdued. Large or small. Smooth or rough. Coarse or fine. Dense or airy. The idea is to bring visual excitement to the garden by using complementary and sometimes contrasting texture. Of course, flowering plants provide points of interest, but foliage, trunks, twigs and branches are what will predominate when the flowers fade.

Let’s consider texture in a couple of ways: the bones of the garden and the plants that provide seasonal interest.

Evergreen plants might come to mind first for the bones of the garden. Whether trees or shrubs, they can dominate the appearance of your yard. They can have bold foliage, such as a southern magnolia, or fine needle-like foliage like a juniper, Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia) or deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara). Texture might also come in the form of a weeping shrub or tree, such as a weeping yaupon holly. Or consider the large, bold green leaves of aucuba or fatsia for shady sections of the yard. If you combine plants with large leaves with the finer foliage of ferns, for example, you will have a texturally appealing scene.

An example of an evergreen shrub with soft texture is ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata). I have used its long, finely textured compound leaves to soften the appearance of camellias and azaleas in locations that receive part-sun, which is ideal for these plants. Its showy spikes of yellow flowers in winter are a bonus.

Deciduous trees can add to the texture of the garden. A weeping redbud can be very dramatic and eye-catching both with and without foliage, especially if used in combination with low-growing shrubs or groundcovers. Japanese maples can have dramatic effects in the garden, with their finely cut foliage, architecturally interesting branching in the winter and beautiful fall color. Crapemyrtles, river birch (Betula nigra), Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia) and dogwoods (Cornus florida) are examples of trees with interesting bark, which is especially appreciated during the dormant season. A photo of Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana) in the November/December issue of Texas Gardener, showing its sinuous, smooth trunks, reminded me of what a great small tree this is for a well-drained, sunny location. What interesting texture!

Vines can be effective in adding visual interest when properly maintained. All vines need some sort of support and annual maintenance to keep them in bounds. I took down an old fence recently but left the tall wooden posts and ran a horizontal support across the top of the posts to support a crossvine that runs horizontally. It provides a curtain of semi-evergreen leaves that are covered with orange flowers in spring.

There are hundreds of different kinds of plants that can provide interesting and varied visual texture to the landscape. Ornamental grasses are very popular for this very reason. Their upright growth habit and fine texture provide interesting accents to a landscape, whether used with other perennials or in combination with shrubs. They are most effectively used in sweeping arcs or masses, or interwoven between flowering perennials.

The perennial plant of the year for 2022 is little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a wonderful grass that is native to most of Texas. Its somewhat rigid, upright leaves and stems have a bluish cast, with shades of pink, copper and dark-red mixed in. In fall, the clumps of grass are topped with delicate, wispy, silver seed heads. There are several introduced varieties to this hardy perennial to choose from, and any of them can add a unique texture to an informal landscape.

I am a big fan of ferns, not only because of the shady conditions where I live, but also because of the interesting textures they bring to the landscape. I love how the delicate foliage of maidenhair ferns can soften larger shade-loving perennials and shrubs. In one part of my landscape, I enjoy letting the free-roaming ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) — with its long, tall and bold fronds — pop up among the even larger, bolder leaves of oakleaf hydrangeas. Autumn fern, holly fern and tassel fern are three common, mostly evergreen, ferns that continue to look good through most of the winter. I usually cut tassel and autumn ferns to the ground in very early spring before the croziers begin to emerge, resulting in fresh new fronds that shine without the tattered remains of last year’s growth to distract the eye.

Large-leaf plants can add a dramatic effect when used judiciously. Some examples are Fatsia japonica, Farfugium, bears breeches (Acanthus), and elephant ears (Alocasia and Colocasia). They are most effective when used to contrast smaller-foliaged plants. The common aspidistra or cast-iron plant provides a dramatic texture to shaded areas. I like to use them in groupings near the home’s foundation or in a shady bed.

Other forms of bold texture come from the spiky leaves of yuccas and agaves. Palms provide a tropical look with their large fan-shaped leaves. There is a building in my town with white limestone walls and a row of dwarf palmetto palms (Sabal minor) planted at its base. The result of the unusual use of this East Texas native palm is a very attractive contrast of texture and color from the stone to the arching, green palm leaves.

Shrubs and trees with weeping or fastigiate (narrow, vertical upright branching) growth forms make strong statements in a landscape and often are used as a focal point. Use these wisely because the eye of the beholder will stop at such a dramatic shape and perhaps not see the overall context of the landscape. ‘Sky Pencil’ Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) is a great example of a small evergreen shrub with strong architectural form, as the name suggests — very narrow and upright.

An often-overlooked way of adding interesting texture, form and color to your yard is by using tender tropical or sub-tropical plants. Some examples that come to mind include candlestick plant (Cassia alata), poinciana or bird of paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii), tropical hibiscus and crotons. While not freeze hardy in much of Texas, their unique foliage shapes and colors, along with the bold flowers of many of these, provide an interesting contrast to a simple landscape.

Non-living hardscapes bring a totally different texture to the garden. For example, a solitary, large, colorful ceramic pot strategically placed can turn an ordinary corner or section of your yard into a spot of interest. Containers can be planted with annuals or perennials, and even an unplanted ornamental ceramic pot in the right location adds a different form and texture to the living landscape. A trellis, gate or arbor brings a certain feeling or textural appeal to a landscape. I’m sure you can think of other non-living features to use to bring interest and diversity to your yard.

I have given some examples to help you think about how to make your landscape more beautiful and interesting all year long. I encourage you to not just think about individual plants for their color, form or texture, but also consider how to blend your plant selections into a harmonious scene. By adding textural features to your yard, you can have a landscape with a tapestry of texture to enjoy all year. tg

By Keith Hansen
Smith County Horticulturist, Emeritus
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service