I’m not sure if many of you know this… but I used to suck at gardening. Yep… it’s true. I really had no idea how to make a landscape look beautiful. I just knew that I liked plants. They were all so pretty and colorful and just made me happy. I lived for that moment at the garden center when I spotted a plant I’d never seen before.

But, one day I realized that my garden, well, sucked. I literally squinted my eyes to try to SEE it. What is that THING that makes gardens in my favorite magazines so much better than mine? How come, even though I had dozens of amazing plants, my garden didn’t look like the pictures in my magazines?

landscape layering
Soothing backdrop. Pay attention to plant shapes. Tall, upright evergreens create wonderful contrasts with mounded perennials and grasses, for example. (from BHG)

Could it be that my garden didn’t have enough “stuff” in it? I went off to the garden center to buy EVEN MORE PLANTS. And I smushed them into every crack and crevice and opening I could find… and guess what?

It still sucked.

So, I’m not telling you this story to make you feel bad. I’m telling it to you because there’s a solution. And once you learn it you’re going to be like 50 steps ahead of everyone else.  I like to call it Landscape Layering. What I thought was a lack of stuff, was actually a lack of layering.

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To understand layering let’s take a look at my handy-dandy Garden Pyramid for planting.

The Layered Garden Pyramid

The Layered Planting Pyramid

It’s easy to understand landscape layering when you look at this garden pyramid. Start at the top and work your way down. Add more of each type as you go.

Following this garden pyramid is going to change your garden from looking really amateurish to being garden magazine-worthy. Trust me. This is a great guide to help you create a layered landscape that’s lush and beautiful.

Is your garden missing ANY of the categories from the pyramid? Or is there a lack of balance (like lots of evergreens, not too many flowering shrubs and no groundcovers)? This pyramid will give you an idea of how many of each you need.

If you start at the tippy-top with one tree and three evergreen shrubs, how many deciduous shrubs would you need? Obviously more than three, right? As you work down the pyramid you should include more and more of each type of planting.

Once you have all the layers and correct ratios, you need to make sure you are mixing them together properly. This is how landscape layering works. And mixing up the layers in your garden will give you that “magazine” garden look.

Quick Tip: Check out my super-detailed post about the garden pyramid.  After that, you can also get some tips on how to arrange the plants in your garden to get that layered look!

Designing Landscape Layers ebook

Designing Landscape Layers eBook

Get the layered, 4-season landscape of your dreams with this instant-download ebook.

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Key Principals of Landscape Layering

There are a lot of principals of landscape layering and this is a subject that I can talk about for hours. So, If you are already interested you may want to grab the eBook I wrote about designing landscape layers. It has a ton of great examples and way more detail than this post does.

There are a few main principals of landscape layering that will help you to get started:

  • Repetition: Repetition can be used in landscape layering using groupings or “Drifts” of plants. You can also use a similar color and different plants to achieve repetition.
  • Scale: The scale, or sizes of plants you use is important. In addition, the scale of the garden bed in proportion to the rest of your property plays a part.
  • Flow: How does one area of your landscape tie into another? Are you playing connect the dots with different flower beds or are they connected in some way? Learn more about unity and flow here.
  • Depth: Do you have your plants lined up like soldiers in their beds, or are they staggered in front and behind one another? Using depth is an important part of landscape layering.

Now let’s talk a little more in-depth about each of the key principals of landscape layering.

Repetition in Landscape Layering

Consistency in your layered garden design is really important. Repetition can be created by repeating a specific plant, a specific color or a specific plant feature.

Repeat a Specific Plant

Think about how the plant would look if it were a mass planting (like a group of 3, 5, or 7 of the same plant). Planting a “drift” of plants creates a lot more impact than just spotting them throughout.

Repetition of plant type (round evergreen shrubs) unites this garden and makes you want to walk down the path.

Repeat a Specific Color

You can also achieve repetition by choosing different plants in the same color family, such as light green, yellow, or even pink! Repeating the same color (even if the textures and sizes vary) will give a similar effect and allow your eye to bounce across the landscape.

Repetition of color (hot pink blooms) has a similar effect – it makes your eye flow down the path.

Repeat a Specific Plant Feature

How about using several spiky plants, or several shrubs that have horizontal branching structures. By mimicking the features of the plant, you are creating repetition.

Quick Tip: using repetition when arranging plants in your landscape can also create unity and flow. By using a specific plant throughout the entire landscape, you can control how someone’s eye will flow across your landscape.

What Blooms with What?

Never know what to plant together? Find out with this FREE Plant Pairing Guide and become a pro at combining plants for the best garden design possible!

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Using Scale in Landscape Layering

Scale is very important garden layering technique for arranging plants in your landscape. It determines how many plants you’ll use and what sizes of plants you’ll need. This means using scale to determine the proper plant size, using varying sizes of plants and using enough plants for the size of your landscape.

Using the correct size plants

Make sure that your plants will fit into the area when they are full grown.  It’s important to use large enough (or small enough) plantings for the space you are putting them in. Don’t shove stuff into every crack and crevice like I did. You’ll end up with an overgrown mess.

Using varying sizes of plants

Changing up the size of each plant will create visual interest. Using a low, wide shrub next to a tall, narrow tree will accentuate the features of each plant. My free plant pairing guide goes over lots of plant combinations that will bring out the best features of really unique plants.

Using enough plants

Make sure you’re filling up the space with enough plants for the size of your house and yard. If you don’t use enough plants, your landscape will look a bit scarce and disconnected. Honestly if you are like me I doubt you’ll have any problems FILLING the space… but I wanted to throw this in here, anyway.

Creating Flow in Landscape Layering

When layering your plants in the landscape, you’ll want your plants to flow and you’ll also want your garden beds to flow from one of the next. Creating proper landscape flow involves combining your garden beds together, extending your beds out from your foundation and nestling your house into the landscape.

You should think about your landscape as a whole. And… yes that means you’ll have to do some planning, first.

Combine your garden beds together

Try to resist the urge to create tiny “zones” that are spotted throughout your lawn. For example:

  • this is my rose garden
  • this circle is where I put my tulips
  • over here is where I’ll put this tree
typical foundation-hugging landscape

Here’s a typical foundation-hugging landscape with doo-dads scattered throughout. These people must have a ton of time to mow around all the little islands they’ve created.

Extend the gardens out from the foundation

If there is a tree near your garden, why not encompass that tree into the planting area?

Instead of creating smaller areas or hugging your foundation like it’s your long lost grandpa, encompass landscape elements into garden beds.

Better scale for landscaping on a property

This example has a much better flow and the scale of the gardens to the rest of the property is much more balanced. There is still plenty of lawn for the kids to play, too.

Nestle your house into your landscape

Nestle your house into the plantings you are putting around it.  I know this can be a hard concept to grasp. Anchoring the corners of your home with larger plantings that make it look like it’s set “into” the landscape will help to create a better flow.

Quick Tip: Here are 5 more ways to create better flow in your landscape.

Mastering Depth in Landscape Layering

Finally, I think the most important part of a landscape layering is pretty much where the word “layers” comes from: DEPTH. We know that there are many different types of plants you can use. Arranging your plants forward and behind one another is what will make your landscape feel cohesive and lush.

Landscape layering - Gilded Mint
Notice the curves, layering of colors and laddering to give depth (from Gilded Mint).

Good Depth for a Layered Garden Bed

Most garden beds I see, especially foundation plantings, are simply not deep enough. An easy way to improve the look of your landscape is to simply bring your garden beds out about 6 feet out from your home’s foundation.

If you have the space, make it even deeper than this! I have some beds that are even 10-12 feet. I find that the more space that you have, the better off you are.

If you are short on space, a general rule of thumb is to have a depth of at least 5-6 feet to work with.

Create Depth with a Foreground, Middleground and Background

If you have the space, create a foreground, middle ground and background. Tallest plants go in the back and the lowest growing plants go into the front of the garden bed. This is why you need so much depth in your garden beds.

Weave Plants in and out of the Layers

Now, weave some of your middle ground plants into the background.

Or weave some of the smaller middle ground plants into the foreground.

This can be tricky because you don’t want to hide any of your plants, but just offsetting how deep they are in the bed can give the illusion that there’s so much more going on in your garden.

Quick Tip: This post goes into great detail about arranging plants in your landscape.

Quick Tips for Layering your Landscape like a Pro

I’ve already hit on some of these points, but here are some examples of how you can achieve a beautiful layered landscape at home.

Don’t hug the foundation

This landscape uses different sized plantings. It also uses enough plantings for the size of the home. Notice how the landscape doesn’t just hug the foundation?

Repetition is Key

Repeat, repeat, repeat after me: I will repeat both both color and types of plants in my gardens.

Compare and contrast with shape and scale

A mix of shapes, sizes, and colors enlivens these conifers planted as a screen.
A mix of shapes, sizes, and colors enlivens these conifers planted as a screen.

Mix shape, size and color to enliven your landscape layering. Even though they’re all green, they’re different shades of green. Even though they’re all conifers, they’re all different heights and shapes and sizes.

Quick Tip: Learn more about balancing plants in a layered border in my post about symmetrical and asymmetrical balance.

Don’t forget about texture

Play soft textures off of hard ones. Spikes against curves. Little needles against big ones. There’s so much texture in plants– use it to unite groups of plants, or to make one stand out.

Quick Tip: To learn more about texture, read my my post about creating a garden you ‘hafta’ touch by using tons of texture.

What Blooms with What?

Never know what to plant together? Find out with this FREE Plant Pairing Guide and become a pro at combining plants for the best garden design possible!

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Hey, since you're already signed up for my emails, you may be interested in my Free Gardening Secrets video training.

Wrapping Up

When creating an effective landscape using landscape layering, think about how the plants will look together as a whole. Follow the Planting Pyramid to stay on track with the amount of each plant you’ll need. Then let the concepts of repetition, scale, depth and flow guide how you put it all together.

My Designing Landscape Layers eBook goes into more depth about all of these concepts of Landscape Layering. The most important part to successful landscape layering is to have a plan and stick to it. Don’t get caught up in all the hype when you see a new plant you don’t have. Instead, ask yourself: what am I going to plant WITH this? If you can answer that question, you are on the right track.

I’d love to hear (and see!) how you use repetition, scale, depth, and flow to layer your own landscapes! Feel free to comment below and share your thoughts and/or photos.

Keep Reading…

In my perennial garden plan, I’ll go over landscape layering and give you some suggestions for each of the 5 layers:
Layer 1: Ornamental Trees
Layer 2: Evergreen Shrubs
Layer 3: Perennial Deciduous Shrubs
Layer 4: Perennial plants and flowers
Layer 5: Groundcovers, Vines and Grasses

How to create an amazing landscape using layers
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