Landscape designs are three-dimensional spaces, so in order for them to feel right, the foreground, middle ground and visual termination point must be utilized properly. I call this process layering, because it brings that third dimension into play.

Plants take on a critical role in layering a space. In addition to helping frame a desired view, the right specimens, properly placed, will better integrate the major elements in a yard. For example, in my area there are many two-story homes — Victorian style, Georgian, that sort of thing. Visually speaking, it’s a long, straight drop from the eaves down to the ground. But if you were to put a spruce tree at the corner of the home, it adds a graceful transition from the tall building to the ground.

This layering effect must be executed while also making the most out of the plants’ more functional roles, such as blocking a view, sheltering against the wind or creating a sound buffer. Here are some examples of how we’ve accomplished the layering effect on one project with the use of small, medium and large plants.

Large trees: providing perspective

We often bring mature trees onto our sites, and for this project we used several to perform multiple functions. The spruce trees behind the barbecue create a natural backdrop and delineation between the forest setting and the hardscape area in the lower foreground. Spruces are native to the region, low maintenance, and have a type of warmth and elegance that felt appropriate here. In addition, they’re evergreens, which are just beautiful when loaded down with snow.

The large trees also help provide a visual buffer and introduce an element of intrigue. I wanted to compel people to explore the whole backyard. From the pool area, you can’t see the beautiful stream and waterfalls that flow toward the gazebo. You wonder what is back there, and feel compelled to walk and explore. As the view opens up behind the spruce trees, it’s like the old storybook scenario — with every page you turn, a little more is revealed.

We placed the 20-foot spruces on top of a 13-foot berm, which, on the functional side, provides a wind buffer, obscures the road, and blocks the neighbors’ view. The trees create a quiet area that’s sheltered from the cold northwest winds, and they integrate the gazebo so it doesn’t dominate the environment. Notice how the evergreen trees sink the gazebo into the landscape, nestling it in to evoke a feeling of reassurance and comfort. When you’re in the gazebo, surrounded by the sound of water, you experience a sense of intimacy and shelter, thanks to the pine in the back and the spruces separating that area from the pool and patio.