Mid-Sized Shrubs For A Layered Border

Garden borders and beds created with attention to layers (taller plants in back stepping down to medium and then shorter plants) as well as a mix of evergreen and deciduous plants have a three-dimensional effect that not only looks great, but also ensures that the garden has legs over a longer season.

Every layer matters, but the middle layer is likely to be the one that draws the most attention as it is typically at eye level. This is your moment, your opportunity, to use all of those wonderful plants distinguished by loads of colorful blooms or foliage, and those that have stellar textures or forms.

Conventionally speaking, the optimal way to maximize the impact of the middle layer is to use evergreens in the center or in groups depending on the length of your border, and then flank the ends with more evergreens. This ensures you have something green and lush to look at when the deciduous shrubs are done for the season. The rhythm and movement this creates is a never-fail landscaper designer’s trick for building a brilliant border. Of course, this is your garden and a different configuration might work better depending on the plants and the site. The good thing about container-grown plants is that you can lay them out, move them around, and play until you find what works.

Building a border may seem challenging at the start, but just applying a bit of design math can turn you into a pro in no time. To help get you started, we’ve assembled a selection of plants that are the ideal size and scale for the middle layer (3′ to 5′ depending on the actual site and dimensions of the border) and broken them down by groups of zones and then by evergreen and deciduous. If you have a specific challenge or need more advice, please do leave a comment below.

Design Math

  • While there are no hard and fast rules, try for one evergreen shrub for every two deciduous shrubs in a border. For example if your border needs 10 middle layer shrubs that would be about 4 evergreens and 6 deciduous.
  •  Remember that blocks of color and texture bring greater impact to a bed than a jumble in ones and twos.
  • If a plant is naturally greater in scale (such as Red Dragon Japanese Maple) one might be enough; for smaller plants, use groups of three or more, depending on the size of the border.
  • Make sure to include a mix of textures and leaf sizes- fine, medium, and bold.

A Few Examples of Strong Mid-Layers

Upper Left: Upright rosemary is a beautiful evergreen middle-of-the-border solution where you want strong form and easy care.

Upper Right: Designer Andrew Grossman used blue hydrangeas as the middle layer of this part shade border. Notice how the eyes go straight to it (even without the great container!).

Left: Deborah Silver designed this exciting border using a double row of middle sized plants (switch grass and Hicks Yew). Clipping the yew into a formal, tight hedge was a genius move as it adds contrast to all of those billowing layers.

Deciduous Shrubs for Zones 3 - 5

Seaside Serenade® Cape Hatteras Hydrangea
Zone: 4 – 9

Ruby-red color on mophead blooms not influenced by soil pH. Up to 3.5′ tall, 3′ wide. Partial shade to filtered sun.

Angel® Ninebark
Zone: 4 – 8

New foliage emerges vibrant orange and matures to a beautiful, warm, burgundy-red, enhanced by the red stems. Up to 4′ tall and wide. Partial shade to full sun.

Pink Poppet Weigela
Zone: 3 – 7

Repeat blooming shrub that produces a profusion of soft pink flowers against dense, green foliage with a neat, dwarf form. Up to 4′ tall and wide. Full sun.

Evergreen Shrubs for Zones 3 - 5

Compact Mugo Pine
Zone: 2 – 8

Slow growing, handsome conifer displays dark green needles on dense branches. Ideal for tough spots in groups of three. Up to 5′ tall in 10 years. Partial shade to full sun.

Nova Zembla Rhododendron
Zone: 4 – 8

Small, dense, and upright shrub prized for large trusses of showy, bright red flowers. Benefits from protection from winter winds. Up to 5′ tall and wide. Partial sun.

Golden Duchess® Eastern Hemlock
Zone: 4 – 7

Superb dwarf with golden yellow foliage on a low, mounding form. Use as a centerpiece or to flank edges of a border. Up to 4′ tall, 5′ wide. Full shade to partial sun.

Deciduous Shrubs for Zones 6 - 8

Flower Carpet® Appleblossom Groundcover Rose
Zone: 4 – 10

Elegant, versatile, and exceptionally disease resistant with large clusters of pastel- pink blooms. Up to 3′ tall and wide. Full sun.

Goldflame Spirea
Zone: 4 – 9

Three season wonder with bronze-tinged spring growth, rosy-red summer flowers, and brilliant coppery- orange fall foliage. Up to 4′ tall and wide. Partial to full sun.

Seaside Serenade® Bar Harbor Hydrangea
Zone: 3 – 8

Compact with masses of big, white flower heads throughout summer. Up to 4′ tall and wide. Partial to full sun.

Evergreen Shrubs for Zones 6 - 8

Landmark Rhododendron
Zone: 5 – 8

Compact, more sun tolerant, mid-season bloomer with deep fuchsia-pink flowers with faint scarlet spotting. Up to 4′ tall and wide. Partial sun.

Emerald Magic® Meserve Holly
Zone: 5 – 9

Compact male with dense habit and small, glossy, blue-green leaves that take on a burgundy tint in winter. Up to 4′ tall and wide. Partial to full sun.

Passion Party™ Passion Frost Lily of the Valley Shrub
Zone: 5 – 8

Early spring bloomer whose bright flowers contrast rich green and yellow variegated foliage. Partial sun. Up to 4′ tall, 3′ wide.

Deciduous Shrubs for Zones 9 - 11

Cherry Dazzle® Dwarf Crape Myrtle
Zone: 6 – 10

Compact and disease resistant with brilliant red flowers and vibrant red-purple fall foliage. Slow to 5′ tall and wide. Full sun.

Plum Passion® Improved Hydrangea
Zone: 7 – 10

Foliage color transitions from season to season offset by summer blooms. Up to 5′ tall and wide. Partial shade to filtered sun.

Dwarf Pomegranate
Zone: 7 – 11

Dwarf displays attractive orange-red single flowers at an early age, followed by bright orange-red ornamental fruit. Up to 3′ tall and wide. Full sun.

Evergreen Shrubs for Zones 9 - 11

Little Ollie® Dwarf Olive
Zone: 8 – 11

Dwarf, non-fruiting with a graceful, multi-branching habit. Tolerant of shearing to maintain size and shape. Full sun. Up to 6′ tall and wide in natural form.

Everblooming Gardenia
Zone: 8 – 11

Beautiful specimen with upright branches covered with glossy evergreen foliage and long-blooming, sweetly-scented blooms.Up to 4′ tall, 3′ wide. Partial to full sun.

Roman Beauty Rosemary
Zone: 8 – 10

Rugged, deer resistant, evergreen shrub tolerates poor soils, drought, and salt spray. Fragrant and pretty flowers, too! Up to 3′ tall, 2′ wide. Full sun.

Image Credits: Top, iStock; blue hydrangeas, Andrew Grossman Landscape Design, Seekonk, MA; Hicks yew hedge, Deborah Silver & Co., Sylvan Lake, MI.

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