How to Use Color & Texture to Create Your Relaxing Retreat

Posted on March 10, 2010

Water gently trickles over natural flagstone into the lichen boulder reflecting pool below. Ponderosa Pines whisper in the breeze overhead. The smell of wild shrub roses sweetens the summer air. Ahh… such a relief from the obnoxious guy who was on your tail all the way home from the store! Not to mention the co-worker who wouldn’t stop telling you all about their ex all day while you saw twice as many clients. And the dog who escaped – yet again – to enjoy his favorite romp through the neighborhood and subsequent $100 trip to the pound.

Your reprieve is calling! A chance to relax and connect with nature…ctentry

While there are many considerations that go into the design of creating a relaxing retreat (so that no matter how absurd your day has been, you can regain your sanity again when returning home!), one of the most important, yet often overlooked, is the use of color and texture. It is also one of the simplest ways to ensure year-round beauty in your garden. Beyond determining “the right plant for the right location” (how large the plant will eventually become, sun vs. shade and water requirements), knowing how to use color and texture is the magic that will really make your landscape have that “retreat” quality. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Always incorporate evergreen and “winter-interest” plants — for both structure in the landscape as well as year-round interest and usability. Especially where I live, in the high-elevation southwest, this is key. The summers are mild, but the winters also offer abundant days of sunshine and weather warm enough to be outside soaking up some much needed Vitamin D. Having some garden therapy in the cooler months may be even more needed and replenishing to the soul as the days grow shorter and darker and we are able to get outside less. With a little research, you might be surprised by the abundance of plants that are evergreen or semi-evergreen. And please…don’t be limited by junipers! Also consider non-evergreen plants that offer “winter-interest” – rust-colored leaves and red berries peeking through the snow, tufts of dry grass seed heads, peeling bark accentuating a character tree’s twisted limbs. In Flagstaff, AZ and many locations in the southwest near 5,000’ elevation (extending north to Fort Collins, CO and east to Santa Fe, NM), consider:

  • Western Birch2009 Flagstaff Garden Competition Best Use of Color & Texture
  • Corkscrew Willow
  • Quaking Aspen
  • Hawthorn
  • Rugosa Rose
  • Woods Rose
  • Apache Plume
  • Sagebrush
  • Rabbitbrush
  • Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany
  • Cotoneaster
  • Oregon Grape Holly
  • Lavender Cotton
  • Plumbago
  • Creeping Barberry
  • Pineleaf Penstemon
  • Candytuft
  • Wild Strawberry
  • Cut-Leaf Daisy
  • Red-Leaf Bergenia
  • Mat Penstemon
  • Wall Germander
  • Woolly Thyme
  • Turkish Speedwell
  • Woolly Creeping Speedwell
  • Yarrow
  • Periwinkle
  • Leatherwood Male Fern
  • Switchgrass
  • Little Bluestem
  • Maiden Grass
  • Mexican Feather Grass
  • Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass

2.  Mix leaf types – shape, size, and color — and use a combination of trees (if you have space), shrubs, grasses, vines and perennials to do it. Skip the annuals (except to create fun plantings in pots as accent pieces – they are expensive to replace every year and unnecessary with all of the other plant choices). While many plants can look very similar texturally (have you ever gotten several great plants only to find that they lose something when combined with one another?), there really is quite a variety if you make a point to seek them out. The finely dissected leaves of Tall Yellow Yarrow contrast and combine beautifully with Red Shrub Rose – add in Blue Switch Grass and the effect is gorgeous. And don’t forget the natives! Native plants not only are well-adapted and tend to be low-maintenance and low-water, but also offer unique features — attributable to their hardiness — such as the finely-cut, evergreen, blue foliage of Blue Rabbitbrush, fuzzy seed heads of Apache Plume that look great backlit against the sunset, and fern-like foliage of False Indigo.

3.  Go beyond green and consider purple and gray/blue foliage combinations. This is one of my favorite color combinations because it can add so much vibrancy to the landscape and there are so many plants to choose from. While these two colors look great as a feature in the garden when paired together, they can also serve as background, highlighting flowering plants or interesting fern-like foliage or ornamental grasses. It’s all about contrast! Consider these plants:ctsitting-21

  • Canada Red Chokecherry
  • Smoke Tree
  • Purpleleaf Plum
  • Japanese Maple
  • Globe Blue Spruce
  • Dwarf Arctic Willow
  • Blue Rabbitbrush
  • Fringed Sage
  • Blue Spruce Sedum
  • Partridge Feather
  • Silver Speedwell
  • Pussytoes
  • Serbian Yarrow
  • Husker Red Penstemon
  • Purple Maiden Grass
  • Blue Switchgrass
  • Japanese Blood Grass
  • Blue Avena Grass
  • Blue Fescue Grass

4.  Extend color in your garden by choosing plants that flower at different times and are long-bloomers or repeat-bloomers. Okay, this part of planning your retreat can be a little daunting and tedious, I admit. But I’m really not a fan of those “spring” or “mid-summer” garden plans. Who wants to go to all of the trouble of creating a garden sanctuary only to have it really be interesting for a few months each year? To ensure you are getting good color throughout the flowering seasons, sketch out your landscape design plan on paper and then use colored overlays for spring, summer, and fall. Also, choose plants that flower for 4-6 weeks or repeat-bloom, such as:

  • Butterfly Bushctpath
  • Trumpet Vine
  • Blue Mist Spirea
  • Columbine
  • Yarrow
  • Winecups
  • Red Valerian
  • Bleeding Heart
  • Purple Coneflower
  • Cranesbill
  • Blanketflower
  • Coralbells
  • Lavender
  • Desert Four O’Clock
  • Tufted Evening Primrose
  • Scarlet Bugler Penstemon
  • Mexican Hat Coneflower
  • California Fuchsia
  • Coreopsis
  • Hummingbird Mint
  • Hollyhock

5.  Don’t forget the hardscaping and ornamental finishing touches! It’s like deciding on your wall’s paint color, hanging pictures, or decorating your table’s centerpiece. These elements are so joyful to incorporate – whether you choose custom landscape architect designed features specific to your site, or simply have a fun shopping outing. Some will actually help form your garden’s structure, or “bones,” prior to any plantings, while others will be finishing touches that find their place nestled amongst rambling groundcovers. Lichen-covered boulder dry streams and limestone outcroppings, flat stone patios and meandering gravel pathways, carved wood benches and ornamental metal tables, architectural pots and garden ornaments, soothing water pools and cascading falls, rustic peeled-pole arbors and copper-embellished archways…there really is no limit! Use your imagination and explore unique combinations that suit your personality — and have fun adding color and texture to create your relaxing retreat!

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