Garden Design With Plant Texture

texture in garden
Billy Goodnick

There are many elements that go into designing a garden - color, form, sound, fragrance, even the texture of the plants. Texture in garden design refers to the surface quality of the plant. Plant textures run the gamut from delicate and fine, like a threadleaf coreopsis, to the coarse and bold look of a wide, rippled Hosta leaf.

The feel of the foliage is not the only element of texture. Plant texture can change with the play of light and shadow and even with viewing distance. Up close, feathery foliage looks airy and makes you want to reach out and run your hands along it. At a distance, a large mass of fine texture looks like a fuzzy blur.

Too much of any texture can be inharmonious to the eye. Unless you are intentionally trying to be jarring, a major concept of any type of design is balance. In the garden, that means mixing textures so that they highlight one another, rather than hog the limelight. A nice balance can usually be achieved by blending about 1/3 fine texture with 2/3s coarse and bold. Luckily, there are many plant choices.

  • 01 of 07

    Bold Leaves - Hosta

    Hosta with bold Llaves
    Marie Iannotti

    Broadleaf plants give weight to a garden border. They are the perfect foil for many other elements, from feathery foliage to spiky leaves, to delicate flowers. Hosta are easy, inexpensive texture tools. Choose a puckered variety and you've added a second level of texture.​

    Other bold leaved choices include Petasites, Colocasia, Arum, Ligularia, and Darmera (Umbrella Plant).

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  • 02 of 07

    Fine Texture - Coreopsis

    Feathery coreopsis leaves against daylily foliage and cosmos
    Marie Iannotti

    Plants with thread-like leaves call out to be touched, like a feather boa. Finely textured foliage is especially nice when viewed up close and adds a dimension of movement to the garden, but be careful you don't overdo it. Too much wispy foliage can start to look fuzzy. Of all the textures, fine is the most dependent on contrast to make it stand out. Some other great fine-textured plants to try include: Cosmos, Baby's Breath, Asters, Boltonia, and Amsonia all have nice flowers to complement their fine foliage. I especially like Amsonia for the golden fall color of its leaves.

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  • 03 of 07

    Fuzzy Texture - Lamb's Ear

    Lamb's ear
    Marie Iannotti

    Fuzzy-leaved plants tend to be gray. While you might expect gray leaves to disappear in the garden, the tactile nature of the leaves makes them very appealing and they are terrific at making other colors more vivid. If you need more encouragement to grow fuzzy, gray plants, most of them are deer resistant. Along with the fluffy Lamb's Ear, you could also try​ Lavender, Santolina, Artemisia, Russian Sage, and Yarrow.

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  • 04 of 07

    Soft Spikes - Ornamental Grasses

    Blood grass
    © Marie Iannotti

    It's hard to find a garden without at least one ornamental grass and for good reason. Grasses add not just texture, but also sound and movement. No other plant plays with light so intriguingly. You can use them in masses, for impact, but they truly get noticed when they are used as specimens and accents. If you're lucky, they'll add 4 season interest. (Well, at least 3.)

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  • 05 of 07

    Coarse Spikes - Yucca

    Yucca 'Golden Sword'
    © Marie Iannotti

    Most spiky leaves tend to be somewhat stiff and coarse. That may not sound like a feature you'd welcome in your garden, but once again, it's the contract with other leaves, whether fine or board, that makes spiky leaves so valuable. They add an upward sense of movement and often a flowing fountain feel. Tall spiky leaves are often called architectural garden elements because of their strong form.

    Yucca is an under-appreciated plant. This hardy trooper can survive almost everywhere and the sword-like leaves can instantly calm a cluster of fuzzy, delicate foliage. Still don’t like yucca? Iris leaves remain attractive long after the flowers fade. If you live in a warm climate, try Phormium, Agave, or even Aloe.

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  • 06 of 07

    Spiny Texture - Echinops & Eryngium

    Echinops (Globe Thistle)
    Marie Iannotti


    For texture that stands out on its own, you can’t beat thistle-like plants. Most thistles don’t look particularly attractive in a garden, but Globe thistle and Sea Holly look great both in bloom and as the flowers dry. The steel blue color is a bonus. For an almost tropical feel, try growing cardoons in the ornamental border. A cousin of the artichoke, the stocky plants have needles and broad leaves. And if your climate can handle it, there’s always actual ​cactus.

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  • 07 of 07

    Smooth Texture - Sedum

    © Marie Iannotti

    Sedums and other smooth, broadleaved succulents like Hens & Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum), Kalanchoe, Aptenia, and Euphorbia, have foliage that almost seems waxed and polished. In addition to offsetting coarser leaves, many grow in tight rosettes, contributing , plant forum to the design scheme.