Landscape Layering

Landscape Layering

In permaculture we talk about the landscape and what we plant in terms of layers and guilds. I like to think of those layers as the relationship we want to cultivate for the living things in our garden. Plants don’t actually like to be alone. They want to grow with their families AND friends! Plants, and the pollinators that utilize them, like to mingle with different plant species; they prefer to have a few of their own family members growing near them (plant in clusters of 3-5 of the same plant type) in each pollinator bed guild. They need family but also thrive from having friends. But like all things in life, some plants just don’t belong together. Some grow well together, while others simply thrive when the right plant combination is found. In permaculture we try to give the plants (and humans;) the right environment and the right combination of friends (guild) to thrive. The right combination always involves layers!! Here is a cute interview with my favorite gardener Louise Riotte. Her book Carrots Love Tomatoes may be my true go-to on companion planting. Roses Love Garlic is a close second 😉

Let’s get into our layers!!

First we have overstory trees, if you have the room pick a keystone tree(s) native to your ecoregion, you can find one here,

Many of us are not on acreage so we have little control over the overstory trees. In this case you can advocate through your local city parks and rec departments or conservancy groups to plant more native to your ecoregion trees. 

If you are on a smaller property consider your understory trees. My particular favorites for North American guild building are Eastern RedBud, our only native cauliflory tree, Serviceberry, Native Cherry or Native Willow. If you are near water or are creating a rain garden to mitigate stormwater overflow consider a Paw Paw. They also provide food value for you and for the zebra swallowtail. Here is a great book about PawPaw’s by Andy Moore, your local library should have it. If not, ask them to order!! 

Then come your shrub layers. Here is where you can play so much with perennial food value. Berries and nut bearing bushes go here. If you’re not interested in human food value you can still use native pollinator/bird value shrubs. Snowberry, Beautyberry, Spicebush, Button Bush, Northern Bayberry, Elderberry are all great choices in addition to your food value; blueberry, raspberry, huckleberry, currant bushes. Here is a great resource.

Next comes your perennial pollinator powerhouse plants. These provide nectar and pollen for our friends from mid spring to late fall if we plan correctly. My favorites are Monarda, Anise Hyssop, Showy and Stiff Goldenrod, Swamp Milkweed, Ironweed, Blazing Star, Blue Vervain, Brown and Black Eyed Susan, Calico Aster, Golden Alexander, Echinacea and Slender Mountain Mint. Although not native to my Western Pennsylvania garden, Tithonia, Zinnia, Shasta Daisy, White Swan Coneflower, Scabiosa, Gompherina, Marshmallow, Hollyhocks and SUNFLOWERS all grow in my gardens, I love these, they have transient pollinator value as well as being a correct nectar source, they help the honey bees in urban communities that are lacking blooms for the native pollinators and honey bees people keep. Very imp[ortantly they are non invasive and do not do damage to the ecosystem. In Permaculture these flowers also have market value as they hold up nicely as cut flowers. 

Under and in between our perennials and cut flower annuals we can establish a lower pollinator layer by utilizing herbs and food producing annuals. Anything goes but your nightshades (tomato, potato, eggplant, pepper) I love to stick random zucchini into pollinator beds. Plop garlic bulbs here and there, sprinkle beets and radishes around. I let carrots grow for the swallowtails (and dill, parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace) . These reseed but are easy to manage. This is where calendula, yarrow, boneset and borage belong. Tulsi Basil, Pineapple Sage and Lavender are loved by all bees native and honey but they do not compete if there is an abundance of nectar and pollen available. If you have honey bees please add some sources native to the bee you keep but non invasive and keep it to 10% Herbs are great for this. 

  • Note on QAL has been here a long time and if used as bouquet filler and cutting before seed dispersal they are easy to manage. Never plant them. They will pop up on their own because they have been here for so long now. 
  • I also have very specific garden beds for food production. I am simply referring to making use of food in a pollinator bed or general landscape in this layer.

Now we come to the green or living mulch layer. There are quite a few reasons this is an important layer. First off it serves as a “soft landing” this term applies to something Heather Holm talks about when planting for pollinators. Green mulch, or soft green groundcover plants create a “soft landing” when caterpillars fall out of trees. Planting a ground cover rather than using mulch helps sequester carbon because anything that is growing is sequestering. Bare mulched soil does nothing. Our pollinators are benefited again with green mulch because it serves as an extra blanket in the winter and provides the leaf matter the caterpillars need to eat in the spring. When we cover the soil with plants we also  directly build and protect the living organisms in the soil by maintaining a healthy temperature. The plants help keep the soil cool which is a very important aspect to keep in mind when considering global warming. For me, establishing a living, thriving, green mulch layer in a pollinator bed is possibly one of the most important things to consider when planning your planting. Think violets, trillium, strawberries, sedum, anomie, wood aster, wild ginger, ramps, hosta (not native to north america, not a favorite of mine but green mulch and food value for sure) lyreleaf sage, ferns, solomons seal.   

While establishing a green mulch layer is vital to ecosystem health, we can not forget about using good organic, yet non living, mulch in appropriate ways!! By this I mean intentional practices such as leaving the leaves that fall in their place. If there is an abundance of leaves in one area then gather them and move to spots with no natural tree cover, or to an established wild area of your habitat. When planting new plugs, perennials or shrubs you want to use finely chipped loose aged organic wood mulch or fine arborist chips. This can be done once a year in the spring when you wake up the garden (after temps have reached a consistent 55 degrees for ten days in a row) Use grass clippings a few times a year to add nitrogen, again LEAVE THE LEAVES or gather them from the neighbors that don’t spray to insulate your plants through the winter. This is also where some pollinators overwiner so we really do want those leaves. For acreage there are many organic options. All of these mulching practices break down each year and build the health of our base layer the soil. 

All of these carefully considered layers come together to create a happy healthy holistic habitat that can be scaled to any property size. In an urban setting we can easily create an ideal ecosystem (or micro ecosystem) on a small lot but when we scale up to farmland we must begin to consider the paradigm shift that allows us to embrace the idea that cover crops and pollinator strips are just as important as cash crops. When we set plants up to live and grow with the right companions, in the right environments (using layers to meet sun, water, soil needs) we can achieve balance on any property. 

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