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Written by Nedra Secrist, author of Perennials - Thriving Flower Gardens in Every Type of Light.
Nature, the Ultimate landscaper, grows plants in layers. The layers add a three-dimensional feeling that nature does so skillfully a gardener may never notice. Gaze up at our high mountains toward the ridge or skyline. The top layer planting is a bold planting of dark-foliaged pine trees. A drift of quaking aspen trees usually follows and skillfully softens the starkness of the pines with their white-barked beauty and trembling leaves. A creekbed of red-stemmed willows may be merging with the quakes and act as the bottom layer of the landscape. Each layer has added a completely different texture and foliage color to the vignette. In reality, all gardening is trying to mimic the rightness of how nature plants. Layering plants is a first step.
Time-tested techniques like planting tall plants at the back, medium-sized plants in the middle sections, and finishing with short plants as edgings provides enclosure, but mixing it up is more natural. Perimeter layered planting with hedges and shrubs may be an easy design but hedges are high maintenance, requiring constant trimming or they become overgrown and unattractive. Using a combination of these along with a variety of perennials is an easier way to go. A privacy fence layered with lush greenery that blocks a prime use area like a patio, children’s play yard or swimming pool may create a backyard paradise for a homeowner. Layering plants blocks noise pollution as well as giving the gardener a sense of being in their own isolated space. Landscape layering around the foundation of the home can ground the home and make it more lush and attractive. Now let’s take a look at the following suggestions for layering in your garden:
USING SHRUBS FOR LAYERING
Shrubs add structure, screening, and value to any property. When planting shrubs in high mountain gardens, the hardiness or ability of the shrub to withstand not only cold but also heat, wildlife, and other adverse conditions is the first consideration. A brief overview of shrubs with the reputation of being hardy in Rocky Mountain gardens follows, but the most efficient way of choosing shrubs for your own garden is to drive around your community and see the shrubs that look great.
Well-trimmed evergreens are layered down from tall at the back followed by medium and short for an attractive screen from the street. The contrast of foliage, bronze through golden or green adds to the handsomeness of this landscaping.
Forsythia is the first shrub to bloom, and its brilliant blooms welcome spring. Shrubs like forsythia can be planted and trimmed as hedges for a solid perimeter screen, but because they are herbaceous their winter appearance may not be as pleasing as they are in early spring bloom. A general rule for the trimming of shrubs is to remove one third of a shrub per year. Trimming wood from the base of a shrub hedge will thin the base to the point where the shrub will look ragged and top heavy. Sheared hedges are work intensive.
SPIRAEA X VANHOUTTEI
The natural vase shape of spiraea, or bridalwreath, creates a solid privacy fence using only mature plant material. It took years to build this privacy layer and spiraea never falters; year after year, these dependable shrubs return, fuller and more beautiful than the year before.
The function of potentilla in this garden is a long-blooming summer attraction. Shrubs can be used in multiple ways with screening and layering. Potentilla actually is a native wild flower, but with hybridizing, it now is a long-blooming, long-living, easy-care shrub.
VIBURNUMS OR SNOWBALL BUSHES
Viburnum as a specimen planting in front of a picket fence still furnishes inclusion and privacy. The snowball bush’s important traits of zone-two hardiness, elegant creamy-white blooms, and fall interest with colorful berries and foliage always remain true.
LILAC OR SYRINGE
Lilacs are classic garden shrubs that fill the air every spring with their heavenly scent. Lilacs are long lived, lasting for decades. Liliacs can be used for layering, as hedges for privacy, or as a specimen focal point. However they are planted in a garden, they are one of the most beautiful of the flowering shrubs.
DAPHNE ‘CAROL MACKIE’
Daphne is one of the best shrubs for colder regions and prefers alkaline soils, so it belongs in our western gardens. ‘Carol Mackie’ is the best of the Daphnes with its compact, rounded trim size, semi-evergreen and variegated foliage, ‘Carol Mackie’ is highly ornamental wherever it is planted in a yard, and the late spring fragrance from its white-and-pink blooms is intoxicating.
USE TALL-FOLIAGED PERENNIALS FOR LAYERING
Layering your garden with shrub-like perennials adds easy-care lushness to a garden that no other planting achieves for they bloom longer and do not require the trimming that shrubs require and most disappear in winter. Aruncus is an excellent example for layering but the bold foliage of Hardy Hibiscus and Ligularia are even better. Ligularia adds the bronzed color of rounded leaves to the border while Hibiscus adds huge elegantly colored flowers and foliage in late summer. Clematises’ bold flowers scrambling on trellises or arches gives height and layering plus they cover themselves with charming long blooming trumpets in unique patterns and colors.
Vines are one of the best plants to create a sound barrier from highway sounds. Shrub-sized perennials furnish the top layer of height to flower beds or can blend the higher and lower level, as well as adding seasonal colors. Ornamental Grasses are fool-proof bold foliaged perennials that give a certain modernistic edge and are attractive in winter.
Alcea, allium, anthemis, tall asters, delphinium, eupatorium, heliopsis, malva and Russian sage are a few of these tall perennials for layering. Canna lilies with their bold many colored leaves are actually bulbs that have to be harvested in the cold of western winters but they enrich a border and add an elegant seclusion.
USE MID-SIZED PERENNIALS FOR LAYERING THE MIDDLE OF A PARTIAL SHADE FLOWERBED
Medium-tall perennials make up the second layer in a partial-shade garden. Choose one perennial per season and mass it for color. Dicentra, or bleeding hearts, is one of the first perennials to bloom and their thirty-by-thirty-inch sizes will jazz up a section of the layered flowerbed.
For late spring add in tanacetum or painted daisies if red is a favorite color and trollius or globeflower for orange/gold and allium for purple. Summer brings on the golden achillea or yarrow, anthemis and the brilliant colors of lilium.
Aruncus and physostegia bloom next with aconitum or wolfsbane filling in with fall color. Plant clumps of three or more of each of these perennials mixed in with a few shrubs and your privacy
SHORT PERENNIALS ADD THE FINISHING TOUCHES TO A LAYERED FLOWERBED
Plant short perennials along the front of a layered garden bed for a finishing touch. Adding variegated, silvery or bronze foliage plants will stand out in all of the green and are as colorful as flowers. Evergreen perennials like Iberis or candytuft, Bergenia or heartleaf, and Helleborus or lenten rose all bloom in spring but maintain gorgeous foliage through the rest of the months, including winter.
LAYERING FOR PRIVACY USING PLANTS AND WALLS AS A SOUND BARRIER
Enclosing your yard with full-perimeter fencing is expensive and as such is the homeowner’s choice, but adding a privacy fence or wall surrounded with a wide space for flowers can be very satisfying to layer. A patio or sitting retreat like a gazebo located in the midst of beds of shrubs and perennials provides a refuge from the world. Small ornamental trees give the area even more enclosure plus some shade. A chainlink fence is a great start for layering, especially when draped with the fantastic blooms of vines like clematis or honeysuckle.
Sound absorption is done by all parts of the plants, from leaves to stems to trunks, so the thicker the layering the more sound is absorbed. It’s fortunate that sleeping with open windows is during the months when there is more foliage. In winter months when plant foliage is dropped, the plant-created sound barrier loses its effectiveness. Masonry walls and other tall, solidly built fences can reduce the noise levels and are even more effective when layered with plants.
Layering trees, shrubs, and perennials in a yard gives a homeowner a sense of isolated privacy that is hard to find in our stress-filled lives. A thick layer of plants creates a lush and colorful secluded space that deflects street noises.
Walls are natural canvases to create a painting of plants. Small trees, shrubs, and perennials mesh into a lush area of privacy where a homeowner can feel free in their own yards. Not all walls need to surround a perimeter of the property. Some walls may block noise from a busy street. Green screening, using a combination of shrubs, perennials, and fencelines, offers the privacy so necessary in our yards.