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Creating layers in your garden, like these, is not as complicated as it looks.

Landscape Architecture

Creating Vibrant Layers in Your Garden

Layered planting doesn’t have to be complex and, if done correctly, layering can reduce your garden maintenance and increase the time you spend actually enjoying your garden. From the ground plane to the backdrop, you can create your own luscious, layered garden by following these simple concepts.

August 27, 2019

Creating that layered look in your garden.

These days, it feels like everything is blooming at once. With partly cloudy skies, scattered showers and sun breaks – August’s weather has created optimal conditions that allow many gardens to look lush and layered late into the season. In this post, we’ll provide a few quick tips for creating that lush, layered look in your garden while minimizing maintenance.

Let’s Talk Layering

Some of the most striking gardens use the relative height of plants to create an immersive experience that nearly overwhelms the senses. While layering plants can feel complex and daunting — like trying to recreate the expansive meadows of Piet Oudolf or the fabulous themed gardens by Monty Don — we think layered planting can be accessible.

Layered planting doesn’t have to be complex and, if done correctly, layering plants can reduce your garden maintenance and increase time spent enjoying your garden. You can create your own luscious, layered garden by following a few simple concepts.

Start with the ground plane.

Groundcovers are the basis of any attractive, lush-feeling garden. Creeping plants that grow horizontally along the surface of the soil — only reaching 2-12” in height — will not only make your garden feel full, they also reduce maintenance by covering exposed soil and competing with weeds.

Always choose groundcovers that are well-suited to the planting site. If you are planting in full sun with sandy soils, look for drought-tolerant groundcovers that need good drainage. If you are planting in clayey soil in deep shade, look for thirsty groundcovers that require minimal light and tolerate (or enjoy) wet soil.

For contemporary gardens, choose one groundcover and keep it consistent. For eclectic, naturalistic and cottage style gardens, choose a few groundcovers to mix-in together. Plant each groundcover close together (8-18” apart depending on species) to encourage them to grow together and form a consistent cover.

Follow with the mid-layer.

Once you have your ground plane, the next level is the mid-layer. This could be grasses, perennial flowers, bulbs, evergreen shrubs, herbs or any other plant you enjoy that stays between 18”-36” in height. Again, be sure to evaluate the exposure, soil and water conditions and select plants that are well-matched to your existing growing conditions.

For a clean contemporary look, select just a few species to create a consistent theme with repeating colors and textures. The more species of plants you use in this layer, the busier (and sometimes messier) your garden will look. There is no limit to the number of species you can incorporate in this layer, but to avoid making your garden feel chaotic, create a sense of order by repeating a few of the same plants throughout. Mixing evergreen plants with species that bloom in spring or summer, change color in fall, or provide sculptural interest in winter will keep your garden looking good throughout the year and provide interest regardless of the season.

Contemporary layering in the garden from the groundcover to the tall background plants.
Contemporary Layering

The repeated pattern of yellow forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus) and blue-flowered hardy geranium (Geranium x ‘Rozanne’) creates a sense of order along the edge of the garden, while tightly trimmed arborvitae makes a uniform backdrop. The tidy foreground and background plantings allow leggy, wild-looking species like lilies, Helianthus, and variegated Elaeagnus to grow unruly while maintaining a tidy appearance overall.

Choosing plants that change throughout the season will provide more visual interest and complexity, but can increase maintenance if you like to keep your plants trimmed back and tidy. Make sure you match your plant selections with the level of maintenance you are willing to do, and your aesthetic preferences for a naturalistic or clean contemporary look.

Like groundcovers, the fuller your mid-layer is, the fewer weeds will be able to take root. Just like in nature, plants compete with each other for light, water, and nutrients. Create a robust planting bed by spacing your preferred plants close together. Weeds will have a harder time getting established in a well-planted bed, and when they do infiltrate the garden, they will be less noticeable amongst the lush variety of selected plants.

Back it all up with the tallest plants.

The backbone of the layered garden are the tallest plants, usually growing between 4’-10’ in height, creating the background for the rest of the garden. Depending on the size and scale of your garden, this layer could be a hedge, a row of small trees or a mix of tall perennials, giant grasses, and columnar evergreen shrubs. While we tend to think of the tallest layer as the backdrop, just like a painting or a family photo, the plants in the background are an important focal point that ground the whole space and provide essential structure throughout the year.

Layered planting adds interest to this garden path.
Small Scale Layering

A low-maintenance path using just two or three plants creates a simple layered effect. Here, creeping thyme (Thymus serphyllum) covers the ground while tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) provides a colorful focal point, and columnar evergreen shrubs create a consistent backdrop.

For a formal appearance, choose evergreen shrubs or columnar conifers and plant them in a line to provide uniform structure that holds the space year-round. In informal gardens with naturalistic or eclectic aesthetics, choose tall plants that you love and will enjoy year-round. After all, you will see the background plants the most in late fall, winter and early spring when the rest of the garden is dormant, so they should be species you enjoy by themselves. This could be a mix of small trees like serviceberry (Amelanchier ssp.) and vine maple (Acer circinatum), or sculptural specimen shrubs like smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria) and Rhododendron.

Just remember that even selected plants will compete with one another. Make sure that your tallest layer does not create unwanted competition with the mid-layer plants by casting shade on nearby sun-loving plants, or by planting a tall fast-growing species next to a slow-growing mid-height species.

The Key to a Layered Garden

The key to layering is not only selecting the right plants for the space and staggering planting based on height. It is also essential to think about how the plants you select (and the weeds you don’t) will compete and grow alongside one another.

A path through a garden is flanked on each side by layered planting.
Large Scale Layering

A classic cottage style garden: layered groundcovers along the edges, with grasses and colorful medium-height shrubs that create a rhythm of color and texture in the middle ground, while tall shrubs and small trees provide consistent cadence throughout the garden and a backdrop for flowering plants.

Selecting plants with similar resource requirements, contrasting colors and textures — and varying heights — is the first step to maximizing the layers in your garden while minimizing maintenance.

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