Garden Designers Round Table Post: Texture in Gardens

| June 25, 2012 | 15 Comments

Or rather texture in one garden

since we are focussing on

a garden by Thomas Hoblyn at Chelsea Flower Show 2012.

His garden was love at first sight!

It is a sensible show garden designer who creates descent in a show garden.

Us common punters could thus see more of this urbane sunken space from the edge.

And so we could more successfully create an imaginary world which we could inhabit and take ownership of.

So you must just imagine yourself attending a party in the hills above Rome – at least that is my spin on it.

The money is new, but the taste is good.

There are Italian princes, the odd cardinal, a maffia lord without doubt And a starlet or two for some added sex appeal.


And this is the place in which to to be seen.

To saunter with the driest, coldest martini imaginable in your hand and gaze across The Eternal City.  Sure there are the references to the Italian renaissance, Villa This and Villa That, not to mention the Golden Section. But in microcosm this is a contemporary landscape – almost ‘Giubbilei land.’

In microcosm of course, because we’d want more space. Whenever Lesley and I visit gardens we are always saying ‘I like that but I’d want more space around it’. But hey this is a flower show. Let’s not hang Tom Hoblyn on the spatial limitations of a show pitch!

What we would not change is his use of texture.

Hard landscaping first, since it happens first and holds the garden design in place:

Smooth and cool, honed and tide marked  travertine is used for paving slabs and walls and seating.

By way of contrast fine pale crunchy gravel is used for the broad areas.

A rear wall of roughly dressed travertine adds another texture and defines the origin of the dressed  stone.

Thus are space and verticality within the garden texturally defined.

So is travel.

You cross coarse gravel and then walking across water, for the stepping stones do appear to float, you contrast the cool, smooth yet solid feel of stone with the  smooth ephemeral cool of still, reflective water.

Of course, it slips through your fingers like silk yet it would be an unsensual person who doesn’t bow to dabble their fingers in this garden.

In the long stone bench backed by its trough, into which  water jets descend, Tom grasps the essential comfort that cool smooth stone brings in hot places.

Remarks about urinals and the inability to slump back as in a chair are best ignored. And perhaps it also says something about people’s poor posture!

This is the perfect place to sit in the stifling heat of a Roman afternoon with cooled air wafting from the  water jets behind. Its just the place too to rank battalions of dark green bottles of liquor to chill and keep the party rolling!

Behind you parallel hedges of feathery yew, dense box and intervening fine sprays of water successfully juxtapose three more textures in the photograph frame.


Further away the Cypresses are tight, nubbley and drily aromatic.

In the beds and borders Tom carries on the textural game.


Aromatic buns of dry foliage and stubby spires of bloom evoke the native italian flora.

Towering up out of this uber cool the tree bark is rough and earthy.

The hummocky sea of perennials  is pierced by the coarsely architectural Artichoke, a classic of mediterranean food.

Aerial masses of Stipa tenuissima and fluttering  papery blooms of Papaver rhoeas play the warm breeze.

To one side in the gravel the furry delight of Salvia argentea is a studied piece of casualness.

Texture can of course be both felt by the hand and perceived by eye – you don’t touch everything!

You see sage, rosemary, thyme and helichrysum, imagine their feel and mentally release those archetypal scents. Then of course you do all that physically. And picking out one sense alone (touch) is pointless because they are all related in some way and do overlap.

You hear water tinkle and imagine its cool and silken touch and then lean forward to touch it.

You perceive the stipa as light, feathery and soft and see it sway and hear its whisper.

The cool, smooth travertine will receive bare feet as an audible whisper and stilettos as a pistol crack.

Gravel is visible texture, but physically crunches, and is as satisfying a sound as it is as a feeling.

All the changes in surface quality also affect light reflectivity and hence our overall vision and sense of atmosphere.

All this interconnectedness is part of what gives sensory gardens their enduring and delightful appeal.

So texture is a key warp and weft in the garden tapestry.  It can define space, journey, verticality, add atmosphere and interesting detail into the design. And by exploiting it thoroughly in landscape design you can construct a garden which sings even without flower.

An enduring opera rather than a cheap forgettable pop song.

And what of this garden? It only got silver gilt. Well, we would certainly have had 3 cypresses rather than the five which places them too close to the leaden fountain. And we didn’t like the ramps down in.

But enough of the minor caveats! Hoblyn had the confidence to keep so much central space clear and created so memorable an atmosphere that despite its faults this was our favourite Chelsea garden.

Someone give Tom Hoblyn a Chelsea Gold – he’s been knocking on the door long enough!

Robert Webber

The Hegarty Webber Partnership

Now please follow on to indulge yourselves in all the rest of the textural treats provided by our garden design colleagues in the States:

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA


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  1. Pam/Digging says:

    All those poor souls held back by a rope from stepping into this delightfully enticing garden, where one would definitely want to touch the stone, dip one’s fingers in the pool, and run a hand across felted salvia leaves! Ah well, you have conveyed its textural charms quite well for us. I like your point too that texture/touch is interwoven with other senses in the garden.

  2. Robert says:

    Oh without the rope they’d be like a herd of wildebeest and no garden left! Thanks for your comments. Best R

  3. Thomas says:

    A lovely garden. I really loved the planting. It is coarse yet delicate. Bold yet intricate.

    That exact water feature has been done too many times before for a show garden. I wish he did something new with it. But it IS lovely nonetheless and it holds the central space well as a void.

    It was fun to try to follow your stream of consciousness . . . some really enjoyable observations in there.

  4. Robert says:

    Thanks for your comment!
    Yes exactly the void was it, aside from the texture of course!
    Done too many times?
    Guess good design is always good design!
    Thanks and Best

  5. One word- WOW! Pam said it best- those poor people behind the rope. ;-)

  6. Robert says:

    Hi Christina,
    yes great garden wasn’t it?
    the secret is to get there early and we didn’t!
    ta so much for your comment.

  7. Oh, Robert, you had me at “martini”! So enjoyed your words here — the sights, smells, and feel of the place were brought to life. And I agree: the perfect garden of textural delights.

  8. Dear Robert, this garden is extraordinarily beautiful. I would suspect it was all the more beautiful in person. Were I to have designed and planted it, I would go to bed a very happy girl, and I would sleep soundly-for weeks! The little gestures are as enchanting as the big ones. Your pictures do so much to illustrate how an attention to texture can endow a landscape composition. I do so understand what you mean about space-airspace. Thanks for this great post, Dewborah

  9. Robert says:

    Hi Jocelyn,
    I can tell u that the thought of martini hooked me 2.
    Maybe there should be a posting on alcohol in gardens!
    Glad u liked it and thanks for your comments.

  10. Robert says:

    Hi Deborah,
    Yes it was lovely and yes the airspace was somehow the centre of it.
    Chelsea is so crowded that u wanted to float in it.
    But also the airspace was somehow very italian.
    I felt I was in Tuscany, which I last visted for a job about 7 years ago.
    Thanks for your comments.
    U convey how satisfying design can be!
    Best R

  11. Tom Hoblyn says:

    Dear Robert

    a link to your post was forwarded to me and I just wanted to say thank-you very much for your kind words. Not sure if you know but we picked up People’s Choice award at the end of the show which was a bonus. We have also had more design enquiries since Chelsea than ever before which is great too. But reading your words is very reassuring – thanks


  12. Robert says:

    Hi Tom,
    Really pleased on two counts.
    Firstly that it was the People’s Choice.
    A couple of their votes have made what should have been the sensible decision in the last few years!
    Second that it is generating a good level of well deserved interest in your business.
    The comments on this post from some of our GDRT colleagues in the States indicate the garden’s very immediate appeal!
    Thanks for your comment

  13. A very pleasing series of spaces, made even better with your stream of comments. Combining all the visual appeal and martinis with those view corridors or focal points…I think you captured it well, regardless you could not step beyond the ropes! The linear and vertical forms got my attention, of course.

  14. Robert says:

    Hi David,
    Hope you are keeping well?
    Yes, it was a great garden for all the reasons you say.
    Some show gardens live in your consciousness for a long time and I think it will be one of those.
    I didn’t by the way have any martini!
    Thanks so much for your comment.