If you’ve ever drooled over glossy magazine articles, awe-inspiring Instagram feeds or curated Pinterest boards of gorgeous gardens and wondered, “how’d they do that?” you are going to love landscape layering.
Landscape layering is using a wide variety of plants arranged into a staggered foreground, middle-ground and background creating casual, mixed border planting.
When designing a four-season landscape, repetition, scale, flow and depth are design principles used to create a intentional and dynamic garden design. Layering plants, trees, shrubs, grasses, vines and groundcovers in multiple rows using design principles as a guide is what sets magazine-worthy gardens apart from the average home garden.
But, if you’ve ever tried to do this yourself, I’m sure you’ve already realized that it’s not that easy to accomplish. I struggled to create a beautiful garden for over 6 years trying to make sense of books, articles and videos about garden design before I figured this out.
Now I teach home owners how to do it in a step-by-step way through my Design Your 4-Season Garden course!
So, first things first, grab your FREE Master the Mixed Border Guide & Checklist so you can follow along with this post. You’ll get my illustrated 8 step guide, a printable planting pyramid and a checklist that you can use to make sure that you don’t forget any of the steps!
Can you relate?
- You love plants, but you have no idea how to make your landscape look beautiful.
- You live for that moment at the garden center when you spot a plant you’ve never seen before… and immediately put it in your cart!
- Your garden looks great for a week or two, but always reverts back to a messy blob of stuff.
- You’ve felt like you’re garden isn’t “full” enough, but when you planted more plants, it didn’t help (or made things worse/messier).
I know I can…
No matter what I did, my garden was still missing something. I literally squinted my eyes to try to SEE it. How come, even though I had dozens of amazing plants, my garden didn’t look like the pictures in my magazines?
What I always thought was a lack of stuff in my garden… was actually a lack of layering. And, once you learn this you’re going to be like 50 steps ahead of everyone else.
I like to call it landscape layering.
To start understanding layering a bit more, let’s first take a look at my handy-dandy Garden Pyramid for planting.
The Landscape Layering Garden 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.
By the way, there’s a list of links to articles about each layer of the planting pyramid at the bottom of this post so you can read more.
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 1 tree and 3 evergreen shrubs, 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.
Often times, a messy border or a feeling that there’s a lack of “stuff” in your garden bed, is caused by missing a layer of this pyramid (extra hint: it’s usually evergreens).
Once you have all the layers and correct ratios, you need to make sure you are mixing them together properly. Creating these diverse layers of a variety of plants in your garden will give you that “magazine” garden look. This is how landscape layering works!
Designing Landscape Layers eBook (Brand New Version 2.0)
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Key Principals of Landscape Layering
There are a lot of principles of landscape design 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.
Here are few design principles that will help you get started with layering:
- 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?
- 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.
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. When you repeat plants, colors or features, it gives your garden a more cohesive feel.
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 one plant here and there.
You can see in the photo above how the repetition of the round, evergreen shrub guides your eye down the pathway.
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 as repeating a single plant. It helps your eyes to bounce across the landscape and makes everything feel more connected!
Repetition of color (hot pink blooms) in the photo above makes your eye flow down the path.
Repeat a Specific Plant Feature
How about using several spiky plants or other plant textures, or selecting several shrubs that have horizontal branching structure? 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.
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. But, don’t space your plants too far apart either! Your plants should touch each other to create a lush border.
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 (check out some planning resources here).
Quick Tip: If you’re struggling with flow, read my article about unity and flow to learn more.
Stop “Zoning Out” Your Property
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
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.
(Illustration by Pretty Purple Door)
Connect Your Garden Beds
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.
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.
(Illustration by Pretty Purple Door)
Nestle Your House into the 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. This involves creating large garden beds (larger than you’re probably used to), so that you can incorporate a foreground, middle-ground and background layer.
What’s a Good Depth for a Layered Garden Bed?
Most garden beds, 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 to at least 5-6 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 depth that you have to create rows of plantings, the better off you are and the more choices you’ll have when choosing plants.
If you are short on space, it will be difficult to create layers. You’ll either have to choose a lot of small shrubs and space-saving trees, or find ways that you can expand the depth of your garden beds, at least in some places.
Create Depth with a Foreground, Middle-ground 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 offsetting the planting depth in a garden bed can give the illusion that there’s so much more going on in your garden.
Quick Tip: My post about arranging plants in your landscape goes into a lot more detail about creating depth and laying out your plants. There’s also lots of hand-drawn photos by yours truly!
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 (even from scratch).
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?
Use Repetition as Much as Possible
Repeat, repeat, repeat after me: I will repeat both color and types of plants in my gardens.
Compare & Contrast with Shape & Scale
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.
Texture Is the Secret Weapon
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. Texture is the secret weapon in a garden designer’s pocket. It can create so much more visual interest in a planting design.
Quick Tip: To learn more about texture, read my my post about creating a garden you ‘hafta’ touch by using tons of texture.
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 and my Design Your 4-Season Garden course both go into more depth about all of these concepts of landscape layering. The course covers these layering principles in my own step-by-step framework. I’ve helped hundreds of home gardeners create their dream landscapes and I’d be honored if you joined me!
Remember that 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.
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
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