West Palm Beach landscape designer Todd MacLean knows a thing or two about adding texture to a garden

Story and Photos by Tom Hewitt

Lush vegetation surrounds the Spanish bungalow he shares with real estate agent Geoff Darnell, covering almost 1/3 of an acre. But even though green is the predominant color, it is a clever interplay of textures that really brings this garden to life.

A large potted cycad is a focal point in the front garden.

It helped to have the perfect setting to begin with. The couple’s home is just a stone’s throw from Dreyer Park, the second largest park in the city. “It has some of the most amazing trees and landscape features,” MacLean notes. “How could you not be inspired by that?”

Several huge staghorn ferns hang from a 100-year-old mango tree.

A huge ‘Edward’ mango tree (Mangifera indica ‘Edward’) is the centerpiece of the couple’s garden. It was planted soon after the house was built in 1924. According to the original owner, it was about 12 feet tall when planted, and is estimated to be about 100 years old. Huge staghorn ferns (Platycerium) hang from its branches, two of which weigh more than 800 pounds. 

Layering different textures gives the garden a natural look.

MacLean considers staghorn ferns to be pieces of art in and of themselves. The largest ones in the couple’s collection had been handed down for three generations, but the sellers were getting older and no one in the family could take them. They now grow eight different species, including a huge P. hillii, a native of Thailand that boasts countless interesting cultivars. 

Old Chicago brick is used for meandering pathways throughout the garden.

Staghorns can take more light than we give them credit for, MacLean notes, singling out a large specimen of P. veitchii ‘Lemoinei’, an Australian native whose fronds appear to be covered in gray felt. “Believe it or not,” he says, “in their native habitat they grow on rocks in full sun.” Staghorn ferns add incredible textural contrast to a garden, MacLean says, though he wouldn’t suggest placing any of them where they would receive full sun all day.

Even the textural qualities of artwork come into play.

People often underestimate the role texture plays in a garden. Blooms come and go, but texture provides interest year round. Some designers say the best way to get a clear understanding of the interplay of textures is to examine a black and white photo. This forces you to see individual elements without being distracted by color. 

The use of texture really sets the mood of a garden, MacLean notes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the couple’s meditation garden, where a 10-foot Arabian lilac (Vitex trifolia ‘Purpurea’) takes center stage. It was 5 feet when they planted it, but has since been carefully pruned into what MacLean describes as a “funky” shape. “I love its flowers,” he says, “and the seed pods smell like lavender and eucalyptus.”

MacLean loves the huge, mottled leaves of variegated monstera.

A meditation garden is a must for everyone, MacLean insists. The couple does yoga on a regular basis, and created this space for just that purpose. “Having a place to wind down is key to life,” he says. 

Texture also plays a major part in adding elegance and finesse to a garden, MacLean notes. It can also be used to visually manipulate space. A predominance of coarse-leafed plants can actually make a garden appear smaller, while fine-leafed foliage can make it look bigger. Most designers agree that a ratio of two-thirds fine texture to one-third coarse texture is a pretty safe bet. 

Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ contrasts nicely with white Caladium.

MacLean has his favorites for textural interest, including leopard plants (Farfugium japonicum), which line one side of a walkway. Leopard plants are notorious for their bold, attractive foliage and yellow blooms. He’s surprised that more people don’t grow them here, but cautions that they do need filtered light and lots of water. 

Variegated monstera (Monstera deliciosa ‘Variegata’) is another one he loves for its attractive leaves. “The pattern can change from leaf to leaf” he says, “and no two are ever alike.”  Changing light patterns also affect leaf texture, MacLean notes, as does landscape lighting. Leaf color alone can be a factor, since bold colors tend to look coarser and muted colors appear finer.

Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’ looks stunning underplanted with Begonia ‘Alba’.

MacLean points to firebush (Hamelia patens) and necklace pod (Sophora tomentosa) as two of his favorite Florida natives with interesting color and texture. He’s especially proud of a large ghost cactus (Euphorbia lactea ‘White Ghost’) in his front garden, started from a clipping from a garden he designed years ago.

MacLean chose old Chicago brick for the many meandering pathways throughout the couple’s garden. “In general,” he notes, “I don’t like using different types of hardscape on one property. It interrupts the flow.”  Not that anyone who visits this place is ever in a hurry to leave. 



Todd’s Favorites

Although Todd loves most natives, his favorites for texture, color, and form include:
Firebush (Hamelia patens): Easy to grow, great bloomer.
Coontie (Zamia pumila): Love its fern-like quality and its role in saving atala butterflies.
Gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba): Interesting trunk and bark, soft leaves. 
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens): Reminds me of Old Florida. 
Necklace pod (Sophora tomentosa): Nice leaf texture and pretty yellow blooms.

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