Reverse Layering

Layering in landscape design involves placing the smallest plants at the front of a border and gradually increasing the size of plants as you move towards the back. This process adds depth and structure to your design, allowing the landscape to gradually build up to the deepest part of the border, whether it’s against a fence, a property line, or a structure. However, trees should not always be considered the tallest in your selection process and relegated to the back of the border. Often, especially against a structure or in a landscape ‘pod’ (a small landscape bed located in a sea of sod), reverse layering can be the most powerful use of a tree or other large specimen, a method frequently employed by professionals.

Reverse layering involves placing the tallest plants at the front of the border and interplanting them with the shortest selections. For example, a Christmas palm anchoring a landscape pod looks stunning when intermixed with a mass of perennial peanut or Foxtail fern. Imagine a 20-foot towering palm, with its trunk unchallenged by the overused variegated Schefflera, instead standing proudly in a sea of perennial peanut. Or consider the long-blooming Crape Myrtle, ‘Natchez’, with its impressive, exfoliating bark interplanted with a mass of Aztec grass. That’s 20-25 feet of beautiful blooms and bark, dropping down to a 6-8 inch sea of spikey variegated grass. Add your favorite figurine or a large landscape stone about 5+ feet from the trunk of the tree, and your landscape will look like it was crafted in the studio of a landscape architect. Voila!

Tall structures can also benefit from reverse layering. For instance, a slim antique bell atop a tall 6×6 post, lightly wrapped with heavy gauge copper grounding wire, with Mandevilla ‘Alice du Pont’ climbing the wire (and thus the post) begs for reverse layering at its base. Add a sea of yellow or multi-colored dwarf lantana for a color display that will last almost the entire year—300+ days of pure Florida ‘tro-picturesque’ beauty. When you reverse layer using your favorite combinations, remember that the key ingredients are tall objects adrift in a sea of color, shape, or form. Think not in threes, but in twentythrees; otherwise, the effect is lost and your oasis dries up.