When you tour gardens, do you wonder how beautiful blooms become a cohesive, colorful, season-long show? How do the plants blend so perfectly into a cool-colored, serene space, a riot of bright colors to excite the senses, or a contemporary, elegant green space designed for entertaining? While public gardens’ beautiful designs may be due to talented horticultural staff, and some homeowners hire landscape designers to create their ideal aesthetic, not everyone invests in professional garden help. Plus, planning new garden designs and picking plants to fill them is half the fun of gardening! Instead, borrow a design tip from the pros: plant layers in your garden.
What Is a Layered Landscape?
What, exactly, is a layered garden design? Layering means interplanting many different species in the same area to create a garden with ongoing interest. When one plant passes its peak flowering period, another bursts into bloom to continue the show. Layering creates continuous excitement in the garden, providing non-stop color from spring through fall, while also adding elements that add year-long interest, like evergreen shrubs or trees with beautiful bark.
However, layering also involves selecting plants that blend well together, providing visual interest from back to front and side to side. Varying heights, textures, shapes, and complementary colors comprise a well-designed layered garden.
You’re probably familiar with the elements of basic container garden design: thriller, filler, and spiller. The “thriller” is a taller, interesting plant placed in the center or rear of a container that draws your eye to the arrangement; “fillers” add volume to the container, literally “filling” it with interesting, complementary color and texture; “spillers” drape dramatically over the edge of the container, adding additional interest and a flowing feel to the design.
Now, think about your garden bed in a similar manner. Add tall, visually interesting vertical plants in the back or center of your bed, depending on where it’s located. If you’re designing a space against a wall or fence, for instance, place taller plants in the back of the bed. If you’re creating a garden in the center of a lawn or open area, where all sides are accessible and visible, add plants with vertical interest in the center and design outward, including mid-sized plants in the middle and shorter plants along the border.
Assess the Site
Before you run out and buy plants for your layered landscape, first assess the site. Are there any interesting, attractive, stately trees or evergreen shrubs currently in your garden that you want to include in the design? Incorporating existing plants helps cut costs when designing a garden. However, if your current plantings don’t bring you joy—pull them from your design and start fresh!
Do any elements in your garden create a focal point, like a beautiful arbor, interesting gazebo, or pretty porch? Designing a layered garden around an existing structure helps anchor the design—plus, you’ll enjoy your plants from your porch swing or bench as the garden grows and evolves through the seasons.
As you look for a focal point in the garden, also pay attention to the amount of sun your garden receives. Whether your garden basks in full sun or stays cool in shade, there are plenty of options to create a lovely layered look in any light condition. Make sure to check plants to determine their light needs.
Create a Garden Plan
While you might be excited to start digging and planting your new layered garden, first sketch your space. Don’t worry—you don’t need fancy software or an art degree to make a design plan. Keep it simple, and don’t worry if it’s not perfectly to scale, although graph paper may help you have an idea of spacing. Start by adding any elements you want to include in the design, like a garden structure or existing trees. Then, let your imagination run wild!
Keep in mind the layering principles—tallest plants in the middle or back (if against a structure), mid-height plants next, with shorter plants as a border.
For inspiration, check out several of our layered landscape designs here.
Consider Seasonal Blooms and Foliage Color
Along with planting layers of varying heights and shapes, also consider adding plants that bloom throughout the seasons, as well as ones that provide interesting foliage. Take a look at creating continuous interest in the garden to choose plants according to their bloom time, and select several varieties of each into your layered landscape. Some suggested perennials for each season, based on varying heights and bloom periods, include:
Paeonia ‘Bartzella’ (36”)
Amsonia hubrichtii Blue Star (24-36”)
Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ (14”) (pictured)
Ajuga reptans Chocolate Chip (6-8”)
Hibiscus ‘Brandy Punch’ (48”)
Rosa Blushing Knock Out® (36”)
Campanula persicifolia ‘Chettle Charm’ (30-36”)(pictured)
Geranium Azure Rush® (14-16”)
Coreopsis ‘Golden Dream’ (12”)
Campanula ‘Blue Rivulet’ (6-7”)
Heliopsis ‘Bressingham Doubloon’ (48-60”)
Rudbeckia ‘Viette’s Little Suzy’ (26-32”)
Anemone ‘Pretty Lady Emily’ (16”) (pictured)
Dendranthema ‘Radiant Igloo’ (12-14”)
Dendranthema ‘Dainty Pink Igloo’ (8-12”)
Design using colors and textures that appeal to you! It is, after all, your garden, so it should reflect your personality and preferences. Do you love bold, bright, hot colors? Use them fearlessly! Do you prefer calming, cool colors? Great—incorporate them into your serene space! Even a garden designed with all white flowers against gorgeous green foliage makes a lovely layered landscape.
When designing your layers, consider consulting the color wheel—choosing complementary or analogous colors to create a cohesive feel throughout the garden design. Using repetition in the garden also helps create continuity—whether it’s the use of texture or repetitive color accents to tie the design together.
No matter if your goal is to create a tour-worthy home garden, design a relaxing space to watch pollinators play, or entertain friends in a backyard filled with beautiful blooms, a well-designed layered landscape allows you to enjoy your garden throughout the seasons. And who knows—you might find your own garden featured on a tour in a few years!
For more gardening inspiration, be sure to join Rozanne’s Inner Circle!