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Living Layered Landscapes

Photo by Tim Webb
Blue salvia, blue phlox, sweet pea, and peonies in The Herb Garden at the Western Kentucky Botanical Garden in Owensboro. Photo: William Tyler
Photo: William Tyler
Photo: John Nation
Photo: John Nation
Photo: John Nation

How does your garden grow? Probably not with “silver bells and cockleshells and pretty maids all in a row.”

Although it may seem contrary to the overly fussy design scheme that has taken root over the years in contemporary suburban landscapes, borrowing from Mother Nature’s playbook is a growing trend. A living, layered landscape presents a more relaxed planting style that favors densely planted and low-care native trees, shrubs, grasses, perennials, and ground covers over the traditional mulched, mowed, and manicured lawn.

Need inspiration? Just walk into the  nearest forest.

“I take nature in a forest as my model and bring that into people’s yards,” says Connie May, owner of Chrysalis Natural Landscapes in Frankfort. Her early interest in native plants has morphed into a passion for planting microforests, a word she coined to describe a densely planted landscape with stratification or layering, and lots of diversity. “Consider the hundreds of plants and animals living in the yard before that house was built,” she says. “It was nature.”

Casey Hammett, horticulturist at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, served by Salt River Electric cooperative, says, “Wildlife continues to lose natural habitat, thanks largely to human development. Instead of being discouraged by this trend, though, many people are inspired to curb it by establishing naturalistic landscapes in their yards. These dynamic spaces are meant to be enjoyed by people while providing habitat for native plants, pollinators, birds, and other animals.”

Do-it-yourselfers can create this environment right in their own backyard.

“Not only will you accomplish a minirestoration project, but wildlife depends on native species and will flock to your yard for seeds, nuts, fruit, and nectar,” Hammett says. “Water sources, feeders, and nesting boxes further increase habitat value.”

Tavia Cathcart Brown, executive director of the Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve in Goshen, has created numerous layered landscapes. These woodland gardens—including the 2-acre native wildflower and fern garden she established at the nature preserve—are planted in layers of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants.

Brown notes the benefits to homeowners in planting such a naturalistic scheme:

  • Backyard woodland gardens create an inviting getaway.
    There is added year-round interest through planting layers of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants.
  • These gardens convey a sense of carefree wonder with the changing patterns of light and shadow, color, and texture of plants.
  • Many native woodland garden plants require much less maintenance than growing grass/turf.
  • These naturalistic gardens invite birds and butterflies and create a happy habitat.

“What resonates with humans is nature; it’s why so many of us drive miles to a state park to hike,” says May. “You can’t do any better than what nature’s already done.”

Step-by-step guide to creating a pollinator garden

Diversity and densely planted are the watchwords for attracting pollinators to the garden. A diversity of plant species in the garden can provide nesting sites, food, and shelter year-round for birds, butterflies, and other insects.

Do-it-yourselfers interested in planting a pollinator garden can do so in just a few easy steps.

Set aside a garden space of 7 feet by 7 feet. Divide it into four squares. Add a thick layer of mulch or some old 2-by-4s between the squares to walk on. (This will give you four 3-by-3 spaces.) For the four squares, choose among these pollinator-loving plants: butterfly weed, bee balm, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, Shasta daisy, gray-headed coneflower, little bluestem, cardinal flower, lance-leaved coreopsis, and Joe-Pye weed.

“Pollinator gardens need at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sun each day,” notes Hammett. “Flowers can be planted in pots or in the ground. They can be started as seed or purchased as plugs. Plant during spring, water and weed as needed, then expect flowers in summer and fall.”

Planting an herb garden for yard-to-table flavor

Like fresh herbs added to your recipes? Bill Tyler, a retired physician who has volunteered for 20 years or so at Western Kentucky Botanical Garden, calls herb gardens the “total experience.”

“Herb gardens are a great example of a layered look. The plants involved bring birds, butterflies, and all types of insects, but the main thing about herb gardens—the total sense you get—is the fragrances of the different plants in bloom, the feel and touch of the plants,” Tyler says.

Herbs require little maintenance, yet can produce a bountiful harvest in very little space—think kitchen windowsills and patio and porch gardens. Easy growers include basil, cilantro, chives, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, tarragon, and thyme. Tyler recommends planting what you like to cook with and herbs that have different sizes, shapes, and colors.

“With any garden, I want to be able to look out and enjoy the beauty of it,” he says.

The first step in designing an herb garden is amending the soil.

“Most herbs like sandy soil,” he says. “They like to keep their feet dry and not be wet.”

Tyler notes there is some work involved in getting an herb garden started, but as long as the area is kept free of pesticides or herbicides, you can snip some herbs, wash, and then cook with them.

His best tip: “To enjoy your herb garden, get the soil right. It’s also really nice to use elevated gardens. Start out that way and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble over the years.”

For more information
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Kentucky Route 245, Clermont Road, Clermont, (502) 955-8512
Chrysalis Natural Landscapes, Frankfort; (502) 682-8279
Chrysalis Natural Landscapes
Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, 12501 Harmony Landing Road, Goshen, (502) 228-4362
Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve
Western Kentucky Botanical Garden, 25 Carter Road, Owensboro,
(270) 852-8925


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