Mother Nature prefers her landscape to be layered

If you’re looking for low maintenance, put down layers of tall-, medium- and low-growing plants.

The third week of January is the start of the garden show season and this year the Tacoma Home and Garden Show runs Jan. 24-27. You can meet home improvement experts, talk to builders, landscapers and tradespeople in their booths or just enjoy shopping the vintage marketplace and local craftspeople inside the climate-controlled Tacoma Dome. The show is also the kickoff for the new garden season and I’ll be sharing ideas on the main stage for how to manage any landscape using a technique called “Layering the Landscape.”

Layering the Landscape: a greener way to garden with less maintenance, less water and fewer chemicals

The easy idea for this new type of landscape design is simply to plant in layers of tall-, medium- and low-growing plants, being particular about the plant material. Keep in mind these lazy gardening principles and you’re on your way to a lower maintenance landscape.

1: Low growers crowd out weeds. Benefit: fewer herbicides, more plant material for birds, bees and other pollinators.

A bit of a rant here: the birds and the bees are not pleased with all the neat and tidy and very sterile landscapes often found around commercial buildings (including some schools) that showcase tightly pruned shrubs and a few trees surrounded by blankets of beauty bark. All this open ground means weed seeds (think dandelions) can blow in, take root in the open space and multiply. The next thing that happens is an uncared for look as everyone knows a dandelion is a weed so out come the herbicides to spray on all the weeds. Mother Nature does not approve. The earth in our climate is supposed to be covered with plant material – just as it was before we felled the forests. (Plus some plants that we think of as weeds provide food for birds and blooms for bees.)

The solution: Fill in the lowest level of your landscape with ground covering plants that will smother most weeds plus provide nectar, protection and nutrition for wildlife. The key is to match the right plant to the right place with shade tolerant groundcovers like lamiums on the north side of buildings and drought-resistant low growers like the native kinnikinnick or bear berry in sunny spots. Kinnickinnick Bearberry is an Arctostaphylos plant that is native to our area and despite the common name will not attract bears to your garden, unless you happen to live in the foothills of the Cascades.

The right plant for the lower layer of your landscape may be different for each location and this is what Mother Nature prefers – avoiding monoculture or an area covered with just one type of plant. Mixing groundcovers of different types gives a landscape more of a tapestry look rather than the uniform appearance of artificial turf or the weed-pocked mess of shrubs surrounded with open soil waiting to collect weed seeds.

The Reality: Adding a lower level of plant material that covers your soil will not result in a “maintenance free” landscape, as over time groundcovers will need to be trimmed back and new plants will need to be watered the first summer. The end result will be an area that requires only occasional hand weeding to stop any really persistent or very tall weeds. The other reality is that weeds may pop up in your lower level of planting but they won’t’ be as noticeable nor will they be able stage a hostile takeover of the area. A healthy groundcover can smother any sun loving weed. The groundcover plants shade the soil you’ll use less water as well as less herbicide.

The Beautiful Bonus: The ground beneath your trees and shrubs will bloom, form berries, display flashy foliage and become a habitat for birds, bees, salamanders and tiny green frogs depending on what low-growing plants you add to the mix. More plants are better than bare ground.

Next week: Not everyone can make it to the Tacoma Home Show to learn more about “The Layered Landscape” but next week in this column I will write about adding the upper and middle layer to the landscape.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply. For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site, www.binetti

Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.

Marianne Binetti will be speaking at the Tacoma Home and Garden Show at 2 p.m. Jan. 24 and 25, then at 3 p.m. on Jan 26. Her topic will be “Problem Solving Garden Solutions from Around the World” on Thursday and Saturday and “Layering the Landscape: Common sense design with well-behaved plants that crowd out weeds, save water and beautify your outdoor space” on Friday.