Marianne Binetti

Winter is a great time to plan your layered garden

Japanese maples make an excellent top layer for those using the layered landscape approach.
Japanese maples make an excellent top layer for those using the layered landscape approach.

The fourth week of January is always the time for the Tacoma Home and Garden Show, and this year I’ll be speaking Thursday through Saturday on lowering your maintenance and going greener with “The Layered Landscape: Common sense design with well-behaved plants to crowd weeds, save water and beautify your outdoor space.”

Last week in this column I wrote about the lowest layer – adding groundcovers and lower growing plants to fill in the weed attracting areas of naked soil. Mixing plants for a tapestry of color and texture is how Mother Nature prefers our landscapes.

This week, just for those that cannot make my talks at the show, the column suggests plants for the middle and tallest layers of the landscape:

Middle layer: hard working shrubs

The easy answer to lower maintenance is planting the right shrub in the right place. Then if the plant does well, you add more. This creates a landscape with large blocks of color from shrubs that mingle and touch just as they would in nature. More soil is shaded for less moisture loss, and less pruning is required as the buzz cut is replaced with a more natural-looking community of plants.

Some of the best behaved shrubs for our area include the spiraea and barberry families for sunny sites and dry soil, nandina and euonymus shrubs for a mix of sun and shade and the large selection of native plants such as mahonia and sword ferns for shaded sites that imitate our native forests. For urban gardens or containers invest in the naturally dwarf evergreens that need no pruning, don’t drop leaves or berries yet provide year round foliage interest.

Shrubs provide the backbone of the layered landscape and act as the backdrop for the addition of flowering plants such as annuals and perennials. Consider a curved row of burgundy tipped ‘magic carpet’ spiraeas, a low growing shrub with bright gold and deep purple foliage. Then add a low growing layer of heucheras with deep burgundy leaves. The unusual, deep purple color of the foliage is echoed in both the middle and lower layers for a dynamic planting combo that is low maintenance as well.

Next, let’s add the top layer to this landscape scene to help explain the layered landscape concept:

Top layer: trees and structures that add height

Japanese maples win the award for the best trees to use in a layered landscape.

The Japanese maple comes in a kaleidoscope of colors, heights and growth habits; they adapt to sun or shade and will even be happy growing in large containers.

There are other well behaved trees that can add the upper layer of the landscape including plants that grow in a narrow, columnar form.

Columnar evergreens act as exclamation points in the landscape.

A columnar evergreen is a skinny but tall growing tree/shrub that will add structure by providing a living column to accent the shrub layer with needed height. Yews, junipers, cedars and holly are all available in special forms that grow up and not out.

The most common columnar tree in our area is the Pyramidalis arborvitae, used to create green walls when arranged in a row like soldiers. Deer love to nibble on this common evergreen but will not eat members of the yew family.

Another upright growing but very narrow evergreen looks like a boxwood but is actually a member of the Japanese Holly family. It is called Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’ and this hard to kill evergreen does well in containers as well as very small gardens.

Structures add non-living height to the tallest layer

Garden arbors, obelisks, even bird baths that rise above the shrub layer can also move the eye upward to create a landscape design with layers. Non-living structures add much to the winter landscape and so January is the time of year to gaze from your window and imagine adding a tall or vertical element to your own front or back yard garden.

The layered landscape can be achieved slowly over time by allowing low maintenance plants to fill in your outdoor space. It’s all about the right plants growing in a community to nourish wildlife, shade the soil, block weeds and demand less water. Winter is a great time to start learning and begin layering.

Tacoma Home and Garden Show

When: Jan. 24-27

Where: Tacoma Dome

Marianne Binetti’s presentations: “Problem Solving Garden Solutions from Around the World” at 2 p.m. Jan. 24 and 3 p.m. Jan. 26; “Layering the Landscape” at 2 p.m. Jan. 25.

Tickets: Available through Ticketmaster. Enter Code TNT and save $2.