Layered Garden Ideas: Learn About Planting A Garden In Layers

Layered Garden Ideas: Learn About Planting A Garden In Layers

Layering is an essential part of seasoning cooking. Adding a subtle layer of flavor to each item you add to the pot seasons it and enhances the whole dish without an overwhelming final flavor. Creating a layered garden has a similar purpose. It soothes the eye while enhancing other aspects of the garden. Planting a garden in layers considers both vertical and horizontal eye appeal but also the aspect in which we view the area and seasonal interest. Learn how to build a layered garden with a brief tutorial on the process and its components.

Steps to Planting a Garden in Layers

Layered garden ideas are not new concepts but have been around as long as mankind has cultivated garden spaces for pleasure and productivity. The process takes some planning and time as the garden fills in, but the effect is unique at all times of the year and takes advantage of each plant’s attributes, creating a rich artwork out of the landscape. To start creating a layered garden, consider your soil, lighting, needs, and picture the effect you wish to present.

The first thing to consider is access and borders. This “hardscaping” encompasses walls, fences, paths, buildings, and other access and structural constructions. Utilizing hardscape features to accent the natural aspects of the garden is part of vertical layering.

This may mean having a clematis vine creep up the side of your home or a rose trellis creating a border between the ornamental and vegetable areas of the landscape. It also helps to envision the actual areas to be planted so you can consider what type of installations you require for your vision.

Trees and bushes are the next layer and are appealing in groups rather than sentry-like rows. Next, we consider the medium sized and smaller plants to go into each bed. Each plant has unique form and tells a different story as the season progresses.

How to Build a Layered Garden

After a little planning to decide on the look you want for each area of the landscape, you need to consider how to install the specimens you have chosen. Garden layering with plants must take into consideration size, seasonality, form, and function. For instance, a perennial garden can have 5-foot (1.5 m.) tall plants, and plants as low as woolly thyme and anything in between, but it would be profitless to plant the thyme behind some Joe Pye weed where the access to the view would prohibit spying the cuddly little herbs as they sprawl across the ground.

Planting a garden in layers will ensure that the highest plants are at the farthest eye point of the garden with medium sized in the middle and the lowest growing at the front. Layered garden ideas such as shade gardens, perennial beds, borders, and even xeriscape landscape areas can be done using this approach of vertical layering.

When we are considering garden layering with plants, it is important to look at the horizontal view. Successfully achieving horizontal layering gives a garden bed a mature, finished appearance. It all depends upon planting lower plants so that they will touch each other when they are mature. This promotes a sea of rolling color and texture that is easy on the eye and adds an artistic aspect to the garden.

While you are at it, look at what plants will have winter appeal and don’t hide these behind large plants that will cover their unique beauty. Some of these might be contorted hazel, red twig dogwood, or Edgeworthia with its bare branches adorned with tasseled blooms.

Once you have a sense of the plants you want and the layering approach you wish to take, repeat patterns, colors, forms, and textures throughout the landscape to create unique patterns in the landscape.

No Dig, No Till Garden Method Helps Save Your Back

Digging takes a lot of work. Now we’re not afraid of hard work, and the exercise benefits are good for your body. But gardeners are also a frugal and practical bunch and there’s a whole slew of reasons why one would rather just get on with the planting.

Many people tell us they have back problems that get in the way of gardening. Also, as people age they may not want to spend so much energy digging, hoeing, raking and shoveling dirt. Whether for you it’s any of these reasons, or that you just want to save time, layered garden beds are a good way to garden.

You may have heard of the benefits of straw bale garden method, which we are in our second season implementing. There’s also the the layered garden method, also called lasagna garden because of the layering process.

Called by several names, whatever you call it, the principles and benefits are basically the same, and all save time, money and backaches!

Names for Layered Garden Beds

  • Layered gardening
    • layered garden beds
  • Lasagna gardening
    • lasagna garden beds
  • Sheet layering gardening
    • sheet gardening

Layer Your Landscape: Advice for Getting a Lush Look

Grow a garden from the ground up.

Layered Landscape

Tropicals like 'Toucan Coral' cannas repeat the colors in gerberas 'Hello! Miss Scarlet' and 'Hello! Pumpkin,' and Supertunias 'Really Red'.

Photo by: Proven Winners/

Tropicals like 'Toucan Coral' cannas repeat the colors in gerberas 'Hello! Miss Scarlet' and 'Hello! Pumpkin,' and Supertunias 'Really Red'.

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Adding layers to your garden is a bit like making pasta for dinner. You could serve a dish of nothing but cooked, drained noodles—but why? Top it with layers of sauce, meat and cheese, and your dish becomes lasagna, a delightful mix of textures, colors and flavors.

Planting a landscape in layers adds colors and textures, too, and "flavors" of vertical and horizontal interest. When you grow ornamental trees, evergreens, grasses, shrubs and/or flowers from the ground up toward the tree canopy, you'll always have something attractive to look at.

As the seasons change, different plants will go in and out of bloom, or change leaf colors, or drop their foliage altogether to show off interesting forms and bark. A layered landscape also creates a habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

If you use layers around your foundation, avoid putting shrubs where they'll block windows, and don't grow trees where their roots can cause damage. Arrange the plants so the overhang of your roof doesn't keep them from getting enough sun, rain and air circulation. As you add layers, move away from the foundation and into your yard.

Layered Landscape

Tall grasses make a backdrop for angelonias 'Super Pink' and 'Super White,' and 'Silver Bullet' artemisia. Sweet potato vines 'Sweet Carolina Bewitched Green with Envy" provide a footing for the layers, while 'Magic Show' veronica add dashes of purple.

Photo by: Proven Winners/

Tall grasses make a backdrop for angelonias 'Super Pink' and 'Super White,' and 'Silver Bullet' artemisia. Sweet potato vines 'Sweet Carolina Bewitched Green with Envy" provide a footing for the layers, while 'Magic Show' veronica add dashes of purple.

For a natural, informal look, stagger the heights of your plants. For a formal look, you'll get more impact if the plants are the same size, shape and color, like a row of white hydrangeas backed by evergreens or conifers.

Design Tips for a Layered Look

1. Use repetition. Before you plant, sketch out a design. It’s nice to repeat one plant for a sense of rhythm, and to help draw your eye through the garden. If you prefer, repeat several different plants. They don’t have to be the same size, but for best results, stay in the same color family.

2. Mind your budget. Even if your budget is limited, try not to skimp. Without enough plants, your layers will look thin and scraggly. Ask friends and neighbors if they’ll share when they dig their bulbs or divide clumps of perennials, or start the seeds of fast-growing annuals and transplant them later.

3. Adjust for scale. Check tags and labels to see how big your plants will be when they mature. Follow the recommendations for spacing them, so your garden doesn’t get crowded as time goes by. (It’s fine if your plants overlap a little, or gracefully drape over each other, but you don’t want them to look overgrown.)

4. Make the top layer. Before you plant any trees or tall, upright evergreens for a top layer, find out if and when they bloom, bear fruits or nuts, and change colors in fall. Keep their seasons of interest in mind when you plant, so your garden won’t go through long periods when there’s not much to look at.

Installing a Weed Barrier

Weed barriers are meant to be used in conjunction with garden mulch. Mulch helps hold the weed barrier in place, shields it from harmful UV rays, and hides it from view. The best weed barrier for a garden bed is a woven landscape fabric. Unlike the sheets of black plastic often used, woven weed barriers permit air, water, and nutrients to penetrate down to the soil to reach your plants. In addition to garden mulch, you can use garden staples to hold weed barriers in place. Staples are especially helpful on planting beds set at a slope.

The raised garden bed, made from corten steel, contains a lively mix of foliage textures and colours with (from front) Ophiopogon intermedians 'Stripey White', Nandina domestica 'Nana', Alocasia brisbanesis (Elephant ears) and burgundy Cordyline fruticosa (Ti plant). Photo: Peta North

This 10x5m north-facing walled courtyard in Sydney receives little winter sun but bakes in summer. In the pots are dragon tree, foxtail fern (Asparagusdensiflorus 'Myersii') and Neomarica caerulea. Photo: Nicholas Watt

How to Layer Flower Beds

A full, naturally-looking flower bed requires some foresight in order to ensure each plant has the best growth opportunity and that the placement of your plants gives you the outcome you desire. When planning for a layered flower bed, create a visual by using a picture from the internet or a gardening book. Then do your research and start planting.

Step 1 - Pick the Right Plants

Check the USDA Hardiness Zones map to find out what region you fall into. When choosing plants, make sure your region matches the recommendations.

Step 2 - Gather Information

Create a list of the flowers you love and you’ve identified as likely to thrive in your region. Then gather information about each one that includes planting season, germination, blooming season, length of blooms, spacing requirements, and overall maximum size of the plant including both height and width.

Step 3 - Plan Layout

Backed with information about each plant, sketch out a design freehand, use graph paper, or have fun with an online graphic design program. However you decide to record it, the important thing is to have a visual plan for your flower beds. Always plan for the maximum size of the plant. Although things might seem a little empty in the beginning, you will thank yourself when your plants reach maturity. In the meantime, you can fill in blank spots with bird baths, potted plants, and other yard decor. Plan to plant groups of three or other odd numbers and avoid making straight rows for a more natural vibe.

When deciding on the plants for your bed, make sure you have a combination of types. For example, include some shrubs and perhaps a small tree along with reliable perennials, herbs, bulbs, and some annuals for a splash of color and an opportunity to fill in seasonal holes.

Your plan should start in the front of the flower bed with low-to-the-ground options like groundcover, crocus, succulents, and blue star creeper. Fill the space behind your groundcover with smaller or shorter plants on your list like geranium, begonia, woodruff, and short grasses. Be sure to leave adequate space between plants for growth. Next move into the row of one to three-foot plants like hyacinth, lilies, gaura, and daisies. Behind that, go for the striking shrubs intermingled with tall thin plants. For your back row include tall sunflowers, canna lilies, or hollyhock as a backdrop against the fence.

Step 4 - Plan for Seasonal Changes

You’ll want to consider how your layered flower bed will change from spring through winter and design it with that in mind. Overlap plants to take over for each other as the seasons change. For example, place daffodil and Easter lily bulbs next to each other so that when the daffodils die back, the lilies are pushing through. Also remember that many plants can be divided as they grow which provides additional plants for that space or another one in your yard. Divide daylilies and hostas very early in the season or at the end of the season before there is any chance of a freeze.

Step 5 - Make Adjustments as Needed

One of the most important things to realize about layered beds is that the living items may not always perform exactly as expected. Be prepared to make adjustments throughout the season and into next year as smaller plants get overtaken by a bushy neighbor, or the bulbs fail to bloom. Update your master diagram as you make changes so that you remember what plants need replaced or thinned next year, and where you have a void from a plant you pulled at the end of the season.