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.
- 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
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
Evergreen Shrubs for Zones 6 - 8
Deciduous Shrubs for Zones 9 - 11
Evergreen Shrubs for Zones 9 - 11
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.
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