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Layers and Layers of Planting

By garden designer John Frater. Sitting quietly in a very large and mature garden in Norfolk recently I was struck by how more and more kept revealing itself to me as I looked.

It was a great example of how a garden can captivate and surprise. This depth and character came from layers upon layers of planting, over lapping and interpenetrating. It left me feeling fulfilled and satisfied in a way that very few gardens have done. Although few of us have the scale of this Norfolk garden to play with it is worth knowing how just a few principles can be applied to bring layers and depth into any garden.

You only have to look at the natural landscape to see these principles in action. There you will see the various vertical layers of a woodland canopy, or the intricate matrix of grasses and heathers on the heath. Layers of plants interacting with each other and creating a whole that is much greater than the sum of the parts. Inspired by nature in this way we can apply layer after layer to our gardens, rather like a painter applies layer after layer of paint to the canvas creating a rich, textured, absorbing surface.

John frater (layers)

Most importantly in the smaller garden we have to make best use of the vertical plane. If you plant a tree, for example, make sure you use the space beneath the tree for shrubs or herbaceous plants, or both! Some trees and large shrubs make great hosts for climber and ramblers. Why not entwine two climbers, using the same vertical space for two plants of similar habit? When under planting, use plants that appear on the scene at different times, like Arum italicum sending out its foliage during the winter, combined with Epimedium for foliage during the summer months. More creatively you can use plants that are naturally epiphytic: Fascicularia bicolor is a bromeliad that is increasingly grown in the UK; it can actually be grown on the trunks of palms and trees ferns.

However, perhaps of more general interest is how to get layers of interest into our herbaceous borders. Much is made of planting in blocks and drifts - "in clumps of at least three or five" the saying goes. Of course it is good practice, but sticking religiously to this mantra can result in rather uninteresting and predictable borders. This is especially so when the plants are all graded by height with the shortest at the front and the tallest at the back. These borders remind me of those stiff and awkward school photographs, all the nervous little faces looking back at you - afraid of stepping out of line.

John frater (layers)

To get layers of interest into a herbaceous border you need to break out of this rigid approach, introduce a bit of rhythm and break up the regimented height structure. To achieve this plant what are sometimes referred to as 'dot' plants. These are often plants whose foliage can let the show down once the flowers have faded. A whole drift of these would be a terrible mistake, so dot these plants around individually to create rhythm and to beak up the clumps and drifts. Papaver, Digitalis, Thalictrum and Aquilegia are good examples of dot plants. There are others who suit this roll even though their foliage does not deteriorate. The very upright grass Calamagrostis acutifolia 'Karl Foerster' is a good choice, creating a strong vertical accent that really commands your attention.

Mixing up the heights of plants will also help. Tall plants at the front, for example, means that you have to either look through them, in the case of Verbena bonariensis, or you have to look past and around them in the case of Cynara cardunculus. The border then is not all revealed in one glance - you have to patiently discover the plants as they come into view and there is more visual interaction between the plants.

Where there are drifts and clumps think about how they relate to each other. One drift shouldn't stretch from the front to the back, otherwise when it is not contributing much to the scene it will effectively split the border in two. Think of each drift as a layer of colour, texture and form influencing the way we see the surrounding drifts. What is the effect of one plants colour on the colours around it, for example? Will it enhance the other, harmonize or even blend to create a third colour? And how do the forms interact with each other? Some forms lead the eye, as with the spikes of Veronicastrum or the umbels of Achillea. Other forms hold the eye, such as the ball shaped flowers of Echinops.

Using this more dynamic approach to planting will mean the plants in your borders will affect each other more; there will be more dialogue between the plants - a veritable horticultural chorus with the odd solo artist singing over the top in complete harmony. All you have to do then is find the time to stand and stare, becoming absorbed in the wonderful and often unexpected effects of a vibrant community of plants. Rather than a collection of plants you will have created something greater and far more fulfilling.

By John Frater

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