form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care



A couple of months ago we visited Glacier’s End Arboretum, in Olympia, WA, where we found that we kept wanting to touch the plants! It wasn’t just that the shapes and colors were striking; the textures made us feel like we were in a petting-zoo.

conifers, foliage gardening, plant texture

Helleborus argutifolia, Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’ and Cotoneaster horizontalis combine for a textural treat at Glacier’s End.

The well-textured garden is delightful in all seasons. While we think of texture as a component of how something feels, texture also affects appearance. Texture can be fine or coarse, matte or glossy. The above trio contains a large-leaved (coarse), glossy hellebore, a small-needled (fine) matte fir and a very fine-leaved glossy cotoneaster. Lots to interest, even without the lovely colors!

conifers, plant textures

The textural combinations are striking, even when the color is removed.

Eliminating the color does not decrease the textural variation; it actually enhances it, with the fir’s needles bristling and the glossy hellebore continuing to shine. Now, what about color variation without different textures?

calluna, erica, conifers

Visitors to Glacier’s End are greeted by a beautiful bank of mixed heaths and heathers backed by a living fence of Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’.

The colors of the heathers are striking and the fact that they (and the cedar) share the same fine texture does not diminish the loveliness of the planting. However, if you remove the color, you flatten the effect and reduce the impact.

conifers, heaths and heathers

A collection of similarly textured and colored plants lacks impact.

When most of us begin to garden we are attracted first to color and tend to think of garden design and plant selection with color as the sole attribute, usually flower color. As we approach the shortest day of the year and the time when gardens are mostly bereft of flowers, it is a good opportunity to consider how to make our gardens interesting and inviting all year long.

conifers, Serbian spruce

Texture alone makes an impact; the Picea omorika ‘Nana’ needles contrast beautifully with the glossy leaves of the Camellia.

The photo above illustrates the most basic of textural combinations: pairing matte needles with coarse, shiny leaves.

conifers, pines, firs, garden color, foliage gardening

Color amps the effect: there’s that powder-blue Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’ again, this time paired with a Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Chief Joseph’. The ‘Chief’ is only yellow in winter, just when we need the cheer.

Texture is a continuum. The plants in the above photo are both technically fine-textured, but the Abies has short, stubby whiskers and the pine’s needles are wispy threads. The twigs and stems add a tougher grace note. Yes, it’s hard to ignore the color, but texture is unwilling to cede the floor completely.

conifers, spruce, foliage gardening

A mixed border of conifers and broadleaved evergreens. Shapes and colors (especially that Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ on the right) and textures provide a year-round display.

Glacier’s End is primarily a conifer garden. Mixing conifers, which generally have needles, thus are fine-textured, with broad leaved, coarsely textured, plants is an easy way to create interesting combinations that are attractive and eye-catching all year round.

Crytomeria japonica 'Elegans Compacta' and Corylopsis

It’s hard to decide if the color combination or the textural contrasts are the winners here!

Most Cryptomeria (the shrub on the left in the photo above) take on lavender or rusty hues in winter; the two tones of this one match the Corylopsis spicata leaves and stems. We’d like to give a gold star to the garden makers, who not only got the color combination right, but created a marvelous contrast of opposite textures.

Pinus, foliage gardening

Five different species of pine all play together with varying textures, shapes and structures.

You can even create textural variety within one group of plants. For example, pines can have needles that are long or short, bristly or wispy, dense or loose, upright or droopy, even matte or shiny. All affect the way that light and wind interact with and intensify the textures.

Pinus, conifers, foliage gardening

Pinus wallichiana, Bhutan pine, is probably the loveliest of the temperate pines, with long, drooping, feathery needles. Underneath sits its cousin, Pinus thunbergii ‘Banshosho’, which has short, stubby, upright bristles.

Textural differences can be very subtle, and structure, size and orientation play parts as important as color. It also depends on distance. Fine differences such as in the above photo are only apparent when you get close to the plants. Isn’t it wonderful that as you approach, the plants become more interesting?


Plants with blade-like leaves, such as this Yucca, texturize the conifer border.

Plants with strappy leaves like Dasylirion, Yucca or Phormiums add coarseness to an otherwise finely-textured combination. The conifers and heathers in the above photo are anchored by the coarser Yucca and, we note, the stone.


Serbian spruce, foliage gardening

Is this Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’ or a woman posing? Either way, it’s wearing a fur cloak!

Sometimes a single texture can be on display as with the Serbian spruce above. The foliage begs to be touched.


Cupressus glabra var. arizonica ‘Raywood’s Weeping’

Similarly, without help from others, ‘Raywood’s Weeping’ Arizona cypress provides a virtual explosion of texture, with immature pollen cones lighting up the tips of the branchlets.

Bald cypress

Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Minaret’ is soft and feathery.

A garden’s textural highlights vary with the seasons. Most of the plants at Glacier’s End are evergreen, but even with deciduous plants you can have texture in winter, when it often comes from bark and stems.


fir, conifer, foliage gardening

The needled trunk of Abies procera ‘Rat’.

And don’t forget hardscape when creating textural contrasts in your garden. Stones add coarseness and heft that offset the fine needles and small leaves of the nearby plants.

conifers, pine trees,

The stones do an even better job of textural contrast than large leaves, and don’t need water, fertilizer or pruning!

We don’t want you to forget about color and we don’t want you to forgo form and structure. We  just want you to add texture to your garden to-do list. Make a New Year’s resolution to texturize your garden in 2016!

Glacier’s End Arboretum is a private garden in Olympia, WA. It is open by appointment to members of the American Conifer Society (

Read more about garden texture: Not Another Gardening Blog – Weaving your Garden


8 thoughts on “Texturizing

  1. The black and white photos illustrated your texture point so well. As always an interesting blog and some lovely new specimens to research further. Shanna >

  2. Hi,
    I do enjoy your ability to get just the right shot to display on the Form & Foliage mailings. This timely shot of a Picea omirika ‘Pendula Bruns’ was so appropriate for the season as I can see my granddaughters wearing the long dress, either in green or red. to church on Christmas morn. The dress goes down to the floor with a flair at the calf and accentuates the refined hips just barely. Finally the upper body is covered with a cloak which has a fir hood to keep out the cold wind.
    Thank you for bringing back memories of my wife many years ago.

  3. Hey gals – thanks for the pingback. Some lovely macro-shots here – and I agree with the commenter above; how brilliant it was to include black and white shots to underscore your point.

    I do enjoy your posts highlighting various gardens – next time I take a road trip through the coastal states I hope to spend more time touring gardens and less time touring wineries! Not that I’m complaining………….

    Happy Holidays y’all,

    • You are most welcome! We thought that your discussion of the topic was really fine (just as we have enjoyed your color discussions). If you are ever headed this way, do let us know – we can supply a list of fabulous gardens to visit!
      Sara and Jan

  4. Could it be Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Minaret’ rather than ‘Peve Tijn’ pictured above?

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