January is perfect time to start learning and begin layering

For the middle layer of your landscape, turn to hard-working shrubs.

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 garden maintenance by layering with well-behaved plants to crowd out weeds, save water and beautify your outdoor space.

Last week I wrote about the lowest layer and what plants are best to crowd out weeds.

This week, I suggest plants for the middle and tallest layers of the landscape.

The middle layer of the landscape: 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 like mahonia and sword ferns for shaded sites. For urban gardens or containers, invest in the naturally dwarf evergreens that provide year-round foliage interest.

Shrubs provide the backbone of the layered landscape and act as the backdrop for flowering plants. 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.

Top Layer: The Best 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.

Columnar evergreens act as exclamation points in the landscape.

A columnar evergreen is a skinny but tall 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, 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 and very small gardens.

Structures add nonliving height to the tallest layer.

Garden arbors, obelisks and even tall bird baths can also move the eye upward to create a landscape design with layers. Nonliving structures add much to the winter landscape, 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 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.

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Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.

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