"Landscaping in 'Layers,'" by the Whistling Gardener

Mornings in the garden are the best, so peaceful & relaxing. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.
Mornings in the garden are the best, so peaceful & relaxing. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Before I purchased the Sunnyside Nursery back in 1989, I owned a landscape contracting business in California where we designed, installed, and maintained residential, commercial, and municipal landscapes.

The bread and butter of the business was the maintenance, but from time to time I would get to actually design a whole landscape and at that time of my life, I pretty much followed traditional landscape design principals.

I kept it simple using maybe only three to four different types of plants and planting them in large drifts. This uncomplicated method resulted in a pleasing composition that visually held together, was easy to maintain, and looked nice twelve months a year.

But in retrospect, I would have to say that those landscapes weren’t real exciting, nor were they very attractive to wildlife, like the birds and the bees.

Fast forward to present day, where for the last almost 30 years I have been immersed in an incredible and inexhaustible variety of plant material and the thought of limiting a landscape to three to four varieties is unimaginable, I simply have too many favorites.

Now the challenge is how to incorporate multiple varieties of plants so it doesn’t look like just a collection, but rather a designed arrangement. For me, the technique of “layering” has solved that problem.

Good design calls for some level of repetition, which creates a feeling of cohesiveness. Landscape architects accomplish this by repeating the same plant throughout the design, but homeowners can achieve the same effect by using a variety of plants that have the same overall look.

I find that bold foliage repeated every four to six feet (or more if you have a large area) keeps my eye moving through the design. In between that bold foliage I will cram an assortment of finer textures, until everything is touching and overlaying on its neighbors (gaps or open soil is a no no).

If the bed is deep enough, I will do the same thing behind the front row with those plants spilling over and into that area, so that it looks like there are “layers” of vegetation.

The result of this style is a more natural looking landscape that contains a rich variety of plants (with often four seasons of interest). They all combine together to form a composition that is interesting to the eye yet uncluttered, with just enough repetition to hold it all together.

It’s a known fact that the worst person to ask for landscape design advice is a nursery owner and for good reason; they want to sell you one of every plant on the property.

While this would normally be a recipe for disaster, I am convinced that by using the “layering” concept and spacing out the bold foliaged plants, anyone can assemble an attractive landscape. Granted it will take a little more finesse, but it is totally doable.

For those of us that want it all, this is the best of both worlds: lots of plants and a good looking yard. As a bonus, the fun part comes as things grow and we get to guide and direct our arrangement into the picture we had envisioned. Some things will need to be tamed, while others will need some encouragement, and eventually some will even need to be replaced, which is always a happy occasion for the gardener because you get to take a trip to the garden center and find some new treasures.

If you would like to see some examples of “layering” feel free to explore my garden anytime.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA and can be reached at

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