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Be Bold with Fine Texture

Airy plants add space. Fine-textured plants have several functions, including the ability to make a garden feel more spacious by seeming to recede into the background. Airy plants add space. Fine-textured plants have several functions, including the ability to make a garden feel more spacious by seeming to recede into the background. Photo/Illustration: Steve Aitken

Walk outside and look around. No doubt your eyes will fall upon at least one fine-textured plant. These plants are often so subtle, so refined, that it’s easy to take their beauty for granted. Ubiquitous, they can sometimes go unnoticed until we see them en masse or on a grand scale. Whether it’s the wispy blades of native grasses; the delicate, lace-cut leaves of ferns; or the feathery foliage of threadleaf bluestar, fine-textured plants demand a closer look.

These plants may not be flashy, but their function in the garden is crucial. They act as a binder among plants, adding grace and elegance to the landscape and accentuating the form and color of more flamboyant, larger-leaved garden beauties. Without them, our gardens would feel visually heavy, overwhelming, and ultimately unappealing. By using a few simple strategies, you, too, can incorporate airy plants into your landscape for a more cohesive look.

An open definition of bold provides more design options

When designing with fine-textured plants, a bold counter­point is needed to make all the plants pop and to avoid the messy look commonly associated with airy selections. But the definition of a bold plant can be open. Almost any plant can be a focal point, even a fine-textured one. The key is picking a plant that draws your eye in comparison to its neighbors.

It seems that, everywhere you turn, someone is writing about some new and exciting tropical plant. While these bold selections may be eye-catching, they have a tendency to set a specific style or tone to your garden. I’ve found that there’s a wide variety of fine-textured plants that can fill that same role and provide greater design flexibility. These plants are the star of the show, while the others become supporting players.

Softness in the garden can come in many forms: small leaves, like ‘Purple Emperor’ sedum (Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’, Zones 3–7, far left); needled foliage, like ‘Sea Foam’ artemisia (Artemisia versicolor ‘Sea Foam’, Zones 4–10, center); and airy blossoms, like ‘Elfin Pink’ beardlip penstemon (Penstemon barbatus ‘Elfin Pink’, Zones 4–9, near left). Softness in the garden can come in many forms: small leaves, like ‘Purple Emperor’ sedum (Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’, Zones 3–7, far left); needled foliage, like ‘Sea Foam’ artemisia (Artemisia versicolor ‘Sea Foam’, Zones 4–10, center); and airy blossoms, like ‘Elfin Pink’ beardlip penstemon (Penstemon barbatus ‘Elfin Pink’, Zones 4–9, near left).
Stars of Persia Stars of Persia

In my garden, I use the small-leaved Summer Wine® ninebark as a bold plant. The 5-foot-tall deciduous shrub, with its luscious maple-shaped, chocolate-colored leaves, contrasts beautifully with a grouping of variegated ‘Hinjo’ miscanthus and the exquisite, billowy foliage of a mass of threadleaf bluestar. I complete the composition with a few smoky ‘Matrona’ sedums for late-summer interest. In this combination, the ninebark—which, typically, would not be considered a plant with bold foliage—is the unexpected focal point because the plants it is paired with are green in hue and have a finer texture; this helps draw attention to the dark color and looming height of the ninebark.

While concocting these combinations, I remind myself that it takes more fine-foliaged plants to equal the visual mass of a larger-leaved plant like the ninebark. It helps to put these plant combinations together at the nursery, where you can mix and match, play with textures and color, and experiment with scale.

Airy plants add space
Fine-textured plants have several functions, including the ability to make a garden feel more spacious by seeming to recede into the background.
1. ‘New Zealand Gold’ hebe (Hebe odora ‘New Zealand Gold’, Zones 8–10)
2. ‘Jessie’ euphorbia (Euphorbia ‘Jessie’, Zones 5–8)
3. ‘Filigran’ Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Filigran’, Zones 6–9)
4. ‘Kim’s Knee High’ purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Kim’s Knee High’, Zones 3–9)
5. ‘Emerald ’n’ Gold’ wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei* ‘Emerald ’n’ Gold’, Zones 5–9)
6. Sunshine Blue® caryopteris (Caryopteris incana ‘Jason’, Zones 5–9)
7. ‘Fireglow’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum* ‘Fireglow’, Zones 5–8)
Click to enlarge image Photo/Illustration: Steve Aitken

What is fine texture?

If you ask gardeners to define this often-used term, they might need a few minutes to gather their thoughts. The truth is that fine texture is anything that gives the landscape a soft appearance. This airy quality comes in many different forms.

Wispy blooms: Whether tall and upright, like ‘Siskiyou Pink’ gaura (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou Pink’, Zones 6–9), or short and saucerlike, clusters of small flowers create movement and a velvety look.

Wispy blooms: Whether tall and upright, like ‘Siskiyou Pink’ gaura (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou Pink’, Zones 6–9), or short and saucerlike, clusters of small flowers create movement and a velvety look.

Photo/Illustration: Michelle Gervais
Seedpods: Lacelike structures, like stars of Persia (Allium cristophii, Zones 5–8), provide a fuzzy softness to plant groupings. Seedpods: Lacelike structures, like stars of Persia (Allium cristophii, Zones 5–8), provide a fuzzy softness to plant groupings. Photo/Illustration: Danielle Sherry
Small leaves: Any plant with undersize leaves, such as golden baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii ‘Aurea’, Zones 8–11), helps bind larger plants together.

Small leaves: Any plant with undersize leaves, such as golden baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii ‘Aurea’, Zones 8–11), helps bind larger plants together.

Thin or needlelike foliage: The elongated shape of plants, like ‘Aureola’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, Zones 5–9) and ‘Caledonia’ hebe (Hebe ‘Caledonia’, Zones 8–10), gives the landscape a billowy appearance. Thin or needlelike foliage: The elongated shape of plants, like ‘Aureola’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, Zones 5–9) and ‘Caledonia’ hebe (Hebe ‘Caledonia’, Zones 8–10), gives the landscape a billowy appearance.

Let the mother plant be your guide

Sometimes, while planning a grouping, I get planter’s block; a piece of the puzzle is missing. My solution is to start by first looking for an anchor plant or what I call the “mother plant.” This is the plant I use to build a design around. If the mother plant has a comparatively large leaf, I mentally reduce the size but keep the shape the same to find a suitable fine-textured companion. If the mother plant has particularly small foliage, I mentally enlarge the leaf to find appropriate sidekicks.

I used the mother plant concept in my front yard when I had to find planting partners for a ‘Coed’ hebe. This high-performance perennial has clean, shiny green leaves dressing its long purple stems, which are constantly in bloom with purple bottlebrush flowers. I married it with an evergreen grass called anemanthele and a finely needled ‘Angelina’ sedum. Here, the blades of the grass echo the shape of the hebe leaf but in a slender, elongated form. The sedum needles are the next minimized step down, acting like a shortened version of the grass blades. With each chosen plant, there is some connection to its neighbor yet enough contrast to provide interest. The highlight of this combo is in late summer when the anemanthele produces plumes, forming what appears to be an ethereal cloud of pink smoke.

Let an anchor plant lead the way
If you get stuck trying to make a stunning combination, start with one focal plant like this hebe. By mentally increasing and reducing its foliage, you’ll be able to find appropriate bed buddies.
1. Anemanthele grass (Anemanthele lessoniana, Zones 8–10)
2. ‘Coed’ hebe (Hebe ‘Coed’, Zones 8–10)
3. ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’, Zones 6–9)
Click to enlarge image

Fine turns to bold in a bunch

There are three reasons why fine-textured plants should be grouped in masses. First, a single airy plant has weak visual impact. Second, groups of plants have a more appealing presence in the garden. Third, a group of fine-textured plants has the same visual weight as a solitary bold plant, so grouping helps keep a garden balanced. In nature, we see groups of needled conifers and masses of native grasses carpeting the ground. By replicating this effect, you’ll create a more cohesive landscape. While I occasionally use a single fine-textured plant in a combination, this is the exception rather than the rule.

Be flexible about bold
Not every plant has to have leaves the size of flying saucers to be considered bold. A relatively smaller-leaved selection, like this ninebark, uses color and stature to become an unexpected focal point that also helps its delicate neighbors stand out.
1. ‘Hinjo’ miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis* ‘Hinjo’, Zones 4–9)
2. Summer Wine® ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Seward’, Zones 3–7)
3. Threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii, Zones 5–8)
4. ‘Matrona’ sedum (Sedum telephium ‘Matrona’, Zones 4–9)
Click to enlarge image Photo/Illustration: Steve Aitken

Whether your garden is large or small, it’s important to plant in groups. The goal is to carry the eye, creating order and impact, then punctuate the scene every so often with colorful foliage or larger-leaved bed buddies. For a smaller yard, fewer fine-textured plants are needed, but small-scale grouping is still important. Keep in mind that bolder plants will still draw and advance the eye as they do in larger gardens, but finer textures will increase the feeling of space by receding into the background. So if you want to create the illusion of space for a narrow walkway, bring on those fine-textured beauties.

Grouping creates impact
Feel free to let small leaves and tiny flowers add punch to your garden. Normally unassuming plants naturally increase in stature when planted in large numbers.
1. ‘New Hampshire Purple’ geranium (Geranium sanguineum ‘New Hampshire Purple’, Zones 3–8)
2. ‘Plum Pudding’ heuchera (Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’, Zones 4–9)
3. ‘Lemon Queen’ lavender cotton (Santolina cha­mae­cyparissus ‘Lemon Queen’, Zones 6–9)
Click to enlarge image

I used this strategy when planting my curbside parking strip. It’s amazing to me how much larger my space feels in comparison to my neighbors’ lawn strips. I used groupings of fine-textured plants, despite the fact that the actual plot was very small. The soft, variegated purple moor grass provides a color contrast to the bright blue fireworks of the ‘Peter Pan’ dwarf agapanthus and the ‘Spaan’s Dwarf’ shore pine. The combination of these plants creates drifts of fine texture that carry the eye up and down the expanse, give the garden a balanced appearance, and add a splash of appealing color.

Add balance by massing
Grouping fine-textured plants helps balance the visual mass of their bigger, bolder counterpoints.
1. Variegated moor grass (Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata’, Zones 5–9)
2. ‘Spaan’s Dwarf’ shore pine (Pinus contorta ‘Spaan’s Dwarf’, Zones 6–8)
3. ‘Happy Returns’ daylily (Hemerocallis ‘Happy Returns’, Zones 3–10)
4. ‘Peter Pan’ dwarf agapanthus (Agapanthus ‘Peter Pan’, Zones 9–11)
5. ‘Moon Bay’ heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica* ‘Moon Bay’, Zones 6–11)
6. ‘Bressingham Ruby’ bergenia (Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’, Zones 4–8)
7. Boxleaf hebe (Hebe buxifolia, Zones 8–10)
8. ‘Sundance’ Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’, Zones 8–10)
9. ‘Shaina’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum* ‘Shaina’, Zones 5–8)
Click to enlarge image Photo/Illustration: Steve Aitken

In this spot, I accentuate drifts of fine-textured plants with broad foliage or spots of color to create a four-season planting, which allows me to sit back and enjoy the show while my neighbors mow away their summer.

By following each of these fine-textured principles, your landscape will have greater appeal and prompt the neighbors to wander over to admire the beauty of not only your parking strip but your garden, too.

Photos, except where noted: Melissa Lucas.
From Fine Gardening 124 , pp. 32-39

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