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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. No concepts or understanding at all. I just knew that I liked plants. They were all so pretty and colorful and just made me happy. I wasn’t thinking about the whole picture and lived for that moment at the garden center when I spotted a plant I’d never seen before.

Fast-forward a few years… and I guess you can say that ignorance is bliss. Being in love with plants and gardening is not uncommon. I mean, if you’re reading this you probably love it too. But, one day I reached a turning point in my gardening as I was trolling through one of my dozens of gardening magazines. The landscapes they were showing were just omg… beautiful. I sat there scrutinizing every picture. I literally squinted my eyes to try to SEE it. That thing… what is that THING that makes this garden so lovely? How come, even though I have dozens and dozens of amazing plants… my garden at home doesn’t look like this??


This soothing backdrop uses layering, repetition, scale and flow to achieve a beautiful backdrop. (from BHG)

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Can you relate? Haha, ok well maybe you aren’t as overly analytical as me, but I’m sure it’s crossed your mind that there’s a difference between your home garden and the ones in those gardening magazines. In fact, I’d say that there’s a problem with nearly EVERY home garden I see that ultimately makes it not-magazine worthy.

So back to these magazines I was drooling over. After unsquinching my eyes and blurring and unblurring my vision like I was staring at some sort of 3-D optical illusion poster, my head popped up. I thought I had figured it out… that my garden didn’t have enough “stuff” in it. So off to the garden store I went to buy EVEN MORE STUFF. And I planted all that stuff. And smushed it into every crack and crevice and opening I could find… and guess what?

It still didn’t look magazine worthy. Ugh.

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” or plants in my garden, was actually a lack of layering. And in order to understand layering we have to talk about this handy-dandy Planting Pyramid I’ve created.

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

The Layered Planting Pyramid

Following this planting pyramid is going to change your garden from looking really amateurish to being garden magazine-worthy. Trust me.

So take a look at this pyramid then take a look at your garden. Is your garden missing ANY of these categories? Or is there a lack of balance (like lots of evergreens, not too many flowering shrubs and no groundcovers)? This will give you an idea of how many of each you need. Say we start at the tippy-top with one tree and 3 evergreen shrubs. Well that’s a great start and you have the bones or structure of your garden in place. Now, how many deciduous shrubs would you need? Obviously more than 3, right? As you work down the pyramid you should include more and more of each type of planting.

Once you have these layers down, and the proportions for each correct, we need to make sure we 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.

Main 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

Designing Landscape Layers eBook

32 pages to the layered, 4-season landscape of your dreams.

Repetition in Landscape Layering

Consistency in your layered garden design is really important. Repetition can be created with using

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A specific 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.

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

Repetition in Landscape Layering
Repetition of plant type (round evergreen shrubs) unites this garden and makes you want to walk down the path (Lost Horizons Nursery, Acton Ontario).
Repetition in Landscape Layering
Repetition of color (hot pink blooms) has a similar effect – it makes your eye flow down the path (anneclarkdesign).

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. Scale comes into play in several different ways:

  • Using the correct size plants so that they 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 to 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 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.

What Blooms with What?

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Flow in Landscape Layering

When layering your plants in the landscape, you’ll want plants inside your gardens to flow and you’ll also want your garden beds to flow from one of the next. 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

Instead of creating smaller areas or hugging your foundation like it’s your long lost grandpa, try to combine areas together. Extend the gardens out from the foundation. If there is a tree near your garden, why not encompass that tree into the planting area? Nestle your house into the plantings you are putting around it.  I know this can be a hard concept to grasp. You want to think about your landscape as a whole. And… yes that means you’ll have to do some planning, first.

Typical 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.
Ideal Landscape
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.

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.

A good depth for a layered garden bed is 5-6 feet (so, bring your garden beds about 6 feet out from your home’s foundation). If you have the space, create a foreground, middle ground and background. Now, weave some of your middle ground plants into the background. Or 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.

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

Quick Tips for Layering Plants in the Garden

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?  (From Plantique)
Repetition is Key
Repeat, repeat, repeat after me: I will repeat both both color and types of plants in my gardens (Source).
Compare and contrast with shape and scale
Mix shape, size and color to enliven your landscape. 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.
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 (from BHG).

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:

    1. Layer 1: Ornamental Trees
    2. Layer 2: Evergreen Shrubs
    3. Layer 3: Perennial Shrubs
    4. Layer 4: Other plants & flowers
    5. Layer 5: Vines and Groundcovers


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How to create an amazing landscape using layers | PrettyPurpleDoor.com

7 tips for choosing the RIGHT plants

This FREE guide has 7 key questions to help you pick the perfect plants for your landscape. Pop in your email below for instant access.

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