Designing a new garden layout is easy when you use the layering technique. Noel Kingsbury offers some expert advice
One natural way to create attractive plant communities in a garden is to use the idea of layering. Take a walk in a forest and you’ll see how trees form an upper canopy roughly all the same height, with an under storey below made up of shrubs and small trees. On the forest floor there’s usually another layer of plants, which by necessity are shade-tolerant, although at the forest edges the planting might have greater complexity, featuring plants that prefer sun or dappled shade.
In the garden it’s also useful to consider the visual appeal of layering. This is when plants of different heights and habits are combined to create an attractive composition, rather than the often-confusing picture that nature offers. The aim here is to produce a stronger, more graphic effect that’s easy for us to ‘read’. It’s a useful basis for creating a simple planting scheme, especially if you have very limited space.
UPPER LAYER This is dominated by small trees and large shrubs. A heavily-pruned Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ is the main element (centre back) accompanied by an evergreen Choisya ternata in the corner and a fig tree on the pergola. As tall plants mature, don’t be afraid to prune off unwanted stems and branches to allow in more light.
MIDDLE LAYER This is occupied by a changing palette of mid-height shrubs and perennials. Here, plants such as miscanthus mask the view of the whole space, with a cordyline offering a bold focal point. A few larger perennials, including Euphorbia characias and spires of Acanthus mollis flesh out the scheme.
LOWER LAYER At ground level in this garden the surface is enhanced by pebbles and gravel. Gravel is a great choice, selectively promoting the germination of garden plantsrather than weeds. Self-sown plants here include nasturtiums and Welsh poppies (Meconopsis cambrica).