Get creative with layers

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Planning a new border? In this extract from his new book, Adam Frost explains how to make your planting scheme look balanced and natural, with layering

 For me, layers make planting look and feel right. They bring structure and seasonal interest, but most importantly they create atmosphere. Nature is the best place to learn about planting design,
and plant layers occur in all climates, from tropical rainforests to temperate oak woodlands.

Layers usually consist of bulbs, perennials and shrubs, with the lower canopy and upper canopy of trees above them. But in reality, layers are seldom as clearly separated, so you get blurring of lines as things intermingle over time. It’s a really interesting way to look at gardens and it doesn’t take long to notice when something is missing in a planted scene.

Below I’ve focused on a typical shady border as an example of how to plant in layers, using a selection of my favourite plants for shade.

When you have shady conditions, the choice of plants that will thrive becomes more limited than if you’re working with a sunny spot. That said, there are still lots of beautiful examples you can plant to create a lush little oasis.

This planting scheme combines texture, green tones and light-coloured flowers that can really enhance a shady area. All the plants I select have to work hard, and that’s particularly true for shady parts of the garden.

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Take each layer in turn, picking out textures and tones, and weave in pops of colour and seasonal interest

1 Consider the canopy

Here I’ve gone for a multi-stem cercidiphyllum to create dappled shade. Its leaves have a lovely shape and look crisp and fresh in spring, have a warm hue through summer, then fill the air with the scent of burnt sugar as the frosts arrive.

Underneath is Cornus mas – a small, hard-working tree whose bark has scaly orange brown plates, giving great winter interest. Small clusters of yellow flowers appear very early in the year, followed by dark red fruit in autumn. 

2 Create the shrub layer

Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ has a strong architectural shape with its dark spiky foliage. As a bonus it also has good winter flowers and scent. Evergreen Buxus sempervirens provides a visual link with the mahonia; in a bigger border, you could use several to create rhythm. 

3 Plant perennials with texture
It’s not all about colour in a shady border, so in the perennial layer I’m adding ferns for texture. Matteuccia gives height and exciting lime-green foliage early in the year; dryopteris is a robust old thing that never seems to let me down. Planted apart, they’ll start to create a rhythm through the border.

4 Now add a shot of colour

The long stems of Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae have round sprays of acid green flowers that will really lighten up this shady area. I’m also adding astrantia for its pin-cushion flowers – which are mainly white and fade to green; its palmately lobed basal leaves contrast well with the ferns. Geranium nodosum has small pink flowers and can be semi-evergreen. It has a sprawling habit with light green foliage and is very long-flowering – it starts in late spring and is still going in autumn.

5 Add vertical form and movement

Grasses are great for this, and here I’ve gone for bright green, mound-forming hakonechloa. It has light airy flowers in midsummer and it offers decent autumn colour, contrasting really well with the evergreen buxus. Digitalis works well as a strong vertical that can also bring a sense of freedom to the planting. I want the border to feel natural, and these biennials start to travel as they see fit, which, frankly, always works better than me doing it!

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This feature is xusudchnnc an edited extract from RHS How to create your garden (£20 DK) available from all good bookshops