How to Landscape in Layers

Low-to-the-ground foliage and foliage textures create layered landscaping.

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Create a natural effect in your shade garden by planting storeys of foliage

Ground huggers

Ground huggers create a tapestry layer close to the ground with perennials that grow less than 60 cm (2 ft.) high. Combine foliage textures to add diversity.


Astilbe cultivars have finely cut leaves. Those with white flowers usually have bright-green leaves, and those with pink or red flowers usually have reddish-green or bronze leaves. Astilbes thrive in damp soil and most are not at all drought tolerant; the purple-mauve A. chinensis cultivars are more drought resistant but have a stiffer habit.


Cornus canadensis (bunchberry) is a charming relative of the dogwood tree. It spreads slowly, showing off its dainty white flowers and clusters of bright-red berries.


Dicentra formosa (western bleeding heart) is very easy to grow. It naturalizes, producing finely cut, grey-green leaves and purple-pink flowers. Often going dormant in summer’s heat, it’s a tough little plant that doesn’t mind being gardened around or over!


Native ferns such as Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern), Dryopteris expansa (wood fern) and Matteucia struthiopteris (ostrich fern) grow beautifully throughout B.C. Hundreds of exotic ferns thrive here just as happily.


Heuchera cultivars have mushroomed in numbers and colours over the past few years, and hardiness varies widely, as does vigour. They also vary in how much sun or shade they need – as a rule the thicker-leaved varieties will tolerate more sun and in fact will get better colouring in more light; the thin-leaved varieties like the old ‘Palace Purple’ burn in the sun. ‘Stormy Seas’ has proven the most reliable of the new generation here, but there are dozens of un-trialed new ones out every year.

Primula veris, P. vulgaris, P. saxitilis and many other Primula species that are rarely seen available as plants in the garden centres can be grown from seed to plant en masse.

Native Tiarella trifoliata (foamflower) and eastern T. cordifolia are dainty Heuchera cousins that include many charming and easy-to-grow cultivars. Heucherella are hybrids between the two, and display the best of both species.

Mid-zone shrubs

Cornus stolonifera and C. alba are adaptable shrubs with coloured stems; some cultivars also have variegated foliage. Both are attractive to deer and moose.

Hydrangea enjoys part sun but will tolerate shade. H. paniculata and H. arborescens cultivars have white to pink flowers that age to rich pink and russet tones in the fall. Like the popular but less-hardy blue-flowered H. macrophylla varieties that can only be grown on the coast, they need rich organic soil and deep watering in summer droughts.

Rhododendron (and the azaleas included in this genus) all have fine roots that benefit from the same conditions as Hydrangea, so they make good companions. All plants listed are hardy to zone 3.