Using Plants for Colour and Texture

Working with the colour and texture of the huge variety of plants available is one of the fundamentals of garden design – and one of the most effective ways to provide a major impact.

It is an area which offers gardeners unrivalled opportunity to indulge their personal tastes with their selections from a vast selection of hues and forms, while combining colours and the various textures allows plenty of scope for some highly creative displays.

Controlling Colour

Given the enormous range of colour that plants can provide – bark, leaves and fruits just as much as their flowers – there can sometimes be a bit of a temptation to fall into a kiddie-in-a-sweet-shop mentality and desperately try to have one of everything.

While you often hear gardens described as a “riot of colour”, unfortunately the description can become rather too apt when the end result is an unruly mass of unrelated plantings. Even with the most careful planning, it can be challenging to try to incorporate too many shades and contrasting hues in the design, so although it is important to enjoy using colour – it needs to be controlled.

A little restraint in your choice of colour palette far from limiting your creativity can often be the key to producing the most striking of displays. There’s no need to deny yourself personal favourites or areas of mixed, powerful or highly contrasting colours but if this kind of approach dominates the whole garden, it can end up looking overly “busy” and lacking a theme.

Playing With Perspective

Controlling colour is not just about avoiding potential clashes and one area where it can really come into its own – particularly in smaller plots – is to alter outlook and perspective. Narrow beds, for example, can be made to feel much deeper if plants with light-coloured flowers are placed towards the front, while darker flowers and foliage plants are to the back.

Pale flowers, especially whites and yellows, seem to rush forward to meet the viewer’s gaze, while dark colours appear to hang back, making the bed feel larger and fuller – although it works best for beds running along the side of a garden. The same trick across the end of a small plot can make the boundary seem even nearer, so it has to be used with care.

A better solution here would be to miss out light flowers altogether and concentrate on plants with red, orange or dark yellow flowers at the front, with purples, blues and silvers to the rear. When seen from the other end of the garden, the reds and oranges tend to disappear into the background, leaving the viewer with the impression of a distant bed – an optical illusion created by the blues and purples, which gives a feeling of space. When seen close up, however, those same red and orange flowers themselves jump out, making the bed come alive.

Introducing Texture

While colourful flowers make a significant impact in the overall design , it is important to remember that their contribution tends to be relatively short-lived. Adding plants which bring a little texture to the garden can extend the seasonal interest and provide a useful foil to show off the flowers when they do bloom. Many shrubs or small trees, such as the attractive Japanese Maple Acer griseum with its peeling chestnut-red bark, or the paper tree eucalyptus, have interesting textured bark, and many smaller plants can offer textural surprises too.

Veratrum nigrum, for instance, has the most amazing leaves which appear to have been pleated, while the feathery fronds of many grasses can contrast with tighter more compact flowers elsewhere in the garden. Bamboo too makes an excellent textural addition, particularly for screening areas in Japanese designs, or to soften the surroundings of formal Koi ponds.

Providing a good balance of colour is one of the keys to creating a garden design that really works and the effect this can have on the overall outdoor ambience should never be underestimated – nor should achieving it be rushed. When selecting any plant for the garden, however, no matter how showy its flowers, it is also worth taking the time to consider if it has any additional contribution to make.

With many coming with unusual stems, hairy or glossy leaves or equipped with spines or prickles, it should not be too difficult to have an excellent floral display and introduce some interesting textures at the same time.