Gardening isn’t as simple as just randomly placing plants into the ground – there’s a bit of art and science that go along with it. Well-positioned plants, that aren’t shading or overcrowding each other, will receive optimum light and water so they can grow their best. The right color combinations and leaf textures can make even a small space or container vibrant and interesting. Layering your plantings according to their height helps ensure that plants are neither too sparse, nor too dense, giving them the space to grow their healthiest and provide the best display possible.
Read on for a brief explanation of layered landscaping, plus a list of our favorite tall-to-small plants to use at all levels.
What is layered landscaping?
Layered planting is exactly as it sounds–it’s the method of using different ornamental plants of varying heights, colors, and textures to create cohesive landscapes. Layered garden beds may feature a wide range of colors, or the space may represent a specific color palette, depending on your personal preferences.
Some layered gardens may highlight a particular species or family of plants, but the modern layered garden goes one step further by featuring a blend of annuals and perennials. Four-season layered gardens include plants that bloom in different seasons, displaying brilliant color at various times of the year and providing both habitat and continual food sources for pollinators and habitats for wildlife.
Layered Landscaping Design Principles
The most beautiful layered landscapes use the essential design principles of repetition, scale, flow, and depth to create cohesive plantings. Repetition is achieved by planting groupings or “drifts” of certain plants and colors. Not only are these drifts pleasing to the eye, but the patches of color attract the attention of hungry pollinators.
Scale is balanced by using compact plants in the foreground, medium-sized plants in the middle area, and tall plants in the background to bridge the gap between those distinct sections. In garden beds that can be viewed from all sides, you’ll want to plant the highest plants in the middle of the bed and step smaller plants down towards the edges.
Flow is an artistic term to describe the way that plantings tie into one another, either by spilling over borders or creating the illusion of seamless movement between groups of plants. Depth can be added to layered landscapes by staggering plants of similar sizes and by underplanting shorter plants with taller plants.
With these principles of garden design in mind, we’ll move on to a list of 15 ornamentals for layered landscaping. This is not an exhaustive collection, but the following plants are favorites of many gardeners for their beauty and ease of growing. Visit our Plant Library for a more detailed description and planting instructions for each plant.
5 Tall Plants for Landscaping Layers
Our favorite tall plants serve as the backbone and focal point of your layered garden.
1. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
Who doesn’t love sunflowers? The cheery daisy-petaled heads are a quintessential sign of summer. Sunflowers are a diverse family, with roughly 70 true sunflower species ranging in color from pale yellow to maroon. Many varieties have bicolored petals that feature dark rings of color framed by a lighter hue.
Depending on the variety, sunflowers may range in height from four feet (1.2 m) one foot (30cm) to ten feet (3m) tall! Sunflowers are hardy plants that grow as annuals in all USDA zones. Although sunflowers prefer full sun, they are less picky about soil conditions and have the added benefit of drought resistance and heat tolerance.
2. Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
A perfect companion plant to sunflowers, hollyhocks grow nearly as tall, with some varieties reaching 90 inches (228 cm) tall. A perennial plant in USDA zones 3-10, hollyhocks provide stunning vertical beauty season after season, with very minimal care.
Hollyhocks have always been popular with cottage gardeners for their large ruffled blooms that can be found in hues from rich mahogany to creamy white, and everything in between. Butterflies and other pollinators are equally obsessed with hollyhocks, so be sure to add hollyhocks to your layered landscapes for decoration height as well as purpose.
3. Hardy Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)
A cottage garden classic, this tall plant, the hardy hydrangea (or bigleaf hydrangea) may very well be the most well-known of all hydrangeas. The flower clusters may be blue or pink and are framed by large, serrated leaves. Hydrangea blooms look as lovely dried as fresh, so leave dead blooms through the fall and winter to add interest to your garden.
4. Common Lilac ‘Sensation’ (Syringa vulgaris)
There’s nothing quite like the sweet fragrance of a lilac bush in spring. Mature lilacs reach between eight and ten feet (2.4-3 m) tall. The perennial shrubs are hardy down to USDA zone 3, making lilac an excellent landscaping choice for year-round gardening.
5. Morning Glory (Ipomoea tricolor)
Climbing plants like morning glory are an easy way to add height to a layered garden. Let the vines climb existing structures like fences, walls, and arbors, or build your own trellis using materials you already have on hand, like t-posts and lattice. Morning glory’s large leaves can be used to create a living screen in your garden, offering privacy and casting shade for heat-sensitive plants.
Morning glory’s disc-shaped flowers bloom in varying shades of pink, purple, blue, and cream, depending on the variety. The vines grow quickly, often reaching lengths of 10-12 feet (3-3.7 m). Morning glory is an annual in most USDA hardiness zones, but the plant is a vigorous reseeder–so grow morning glory in containers to help control the spread.
5 Medium-sized Plants and Flowers for Layered Landscaping
The purpose of midground landscaping is to balance low-growing plants with taller backbone plants. The following medium-sized plants add color, texture, and form to the sections between the foreground and background.
1. Poppy Anemone (Anemone coronaria)
Anemones are a game-changer in the layered garden and an excellent companion plant to a number of other plants. Also called windflower, the buttercup-shaped flowers will reach a height between one and three feet (0.3-0.9 m) tall, depending on the species. Blooms range in color from rich scarlet to deep violet-blue to snowy white, depending on the variety.
The small bulbs–called corms–are easy to plant, and after blooming in late spring the foliage will die back, making room for other players in the garden to shine. With the proper care, anemones will bloom again in the fall.
2. Common Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Another garden classic with a cult following, foxgloves will certainly put you in mind of enchanted forests and woodland fairies. The cool-season plant grows as a perennial in USDA zones 4-9, but struggles in warmer climates. Foxgloves reach between three and five feet (31-52 cm) when mature, and bees love the nectar-rich blooms.
The hardy plants produce tall spires of bell-shaped blooms in all shades of cream, apricot, pink, and lavender. Deadhead the first round of blooms for a second flush of color in fall.
3. Canna Lily (Canna x generalis)
Add a tropical flair to your garden with canna lilies. The glossy, lush foliage adds texture to layered landscapes and the vibrant blooms can be found in almost every color, easily customizable to fit any garden theme. Canna lilies will grow about two feet (0.6 m) on the shorter end, but some taller varieties may reach six feet (1.8 m).
Canna lilies are perennial in USDA zones 9-12, but growers in colder climates will want to dig the tubers before the first fall frost and store the bulbs until time to replant again in the spring.
4. Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia species)
This cheery perennial is a garden staple for a number of reasons. A hardy wildflower native to Central and Eastern North America, black-eyed Susans are right at home in poor soils and sunny locations. The herbaceous plants grow between 24 and 36 inches (61-91 cm) tall and have a branching habit. Pollinators and florists alike love black-eyed Susans for their prolific yellow-petaled blooms that last all through summer and into fall.
5. Feather Grass ‘Pony Tails’ (Stipa tenuissima)
No landscape is complete without at least one planting of ornamental grass, and we love the ‘Pony Tails’ variety for its wispy fronds that give the garden a sense of vitality and movement. Feather grass grows as a perennial in USDA zones 6-12, thriving in well-draining soils that receive full sun. Mature plants reach about 24 inches (61 cm) in height and look attractive year-round.
5 Small Plants and Flowers for Edging and Foreground
Compact in size but bold in personality, these plants draw the gaze downward and plug any spaces near the front of the garden. The best plants for this section will be spreading groundcovers or compact varieties that grow no more than eighteen inches (46 cm) tall.
1. Fritillaria (Fritillaria uva-vulpis)
One of the first plants to bloom in spring, fritillaria’s downturned tubular flowers give a whimsical look to any space. Fritillaria is grown from tiny corms that can be fall-planted in USDA zones 7 and above, or spring-planted in cooler regions. The minuscule plants top out at ten inches (25cm) tall, and are the perfect touch to your fairy garden!
2. Dwarf Astilbe ‘Perkeo’ (Astilbe x crispa)
A midsummer blooming perennial in USDA zones 4-8, it’s hard to decide whether astilbe’s fern-like foliage or feathery blooms are more attractive–luckily, we get to enjoy both! Dwarf astilbe doesn’t grow more than ten inches (25 cm) tall and just as wide, so it’s easy to tuck this deer-resistant plant into even the shadiest corners of the garden.
3. Dwarf Aster, Alpine Aster (Aster alpinus)
To look so dainty, the dwarf aster is incredibly hardy. Perennial down to USDA zone 5, the daisy-shaped flowers seldom grow more than 12 inches (30 cm) tall, making the plants a perfect choice for layered landscaping. The yellow-eyed flowers come in shades of pink, blue, and white, and are very attractive to pollinators. Plant dwarf asters in full sun and well-draining soil for the best results.
4. Groundcover Sedum, Stonecrop (Sedum species)
The easy-to-grow, drought-tolerant sedum is a busy gardener’s secret weapon to fill any hole in the garden with poor soil. Groundcover sedum varieties tend to sprawl, upright varieties will grow between 12 to 18 inches (30-46 cm) tall. Sedums are perennial in USDA zones 5-9, but in colder climates, the plants can be grown in containers and brought inside for the winter. Depending on the variety, sedums may bloom in shades of rose, pink, yellow, or white.
5. Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ (Dichondra argentea)
A low-growing annual with silvery-gray foliage, Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ makes a lovely ground cover. The soft vines spread and overflow their container or border, adding elegance to the foremost section of a layered garden.
Get Artistic with Layered Landscaping
Layered landscaping is a great way to experiment with plant form and color on a grand scale, or for those whose gardening space is limited to a deck or balcony, the same principles can be applied to mixed container plantings. You should always feel empowered to make your own calls about what to plant to best express your color and design preferences, but hopefully this list serves as some inspiration for you to make the most out of your planting space by layering different colors and textures. For more information on the basics of creating interesting container plantings see our article Creating Attractive Combination Containers.