Planting in Layers: How to Design with Native Species

by Layne Knoche, RORG Landscape Designer, and Eliana Brown, RORG Director

RORG’s design is based on the planting approach described in the book “Planting in a Post-Wild World” by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. This approach includes the concept of designing with functional layers that form a complex yet organized landscape that reflects nature. RORG’s layers include: groundcover, structural, and seasonal. Our full plant collection list is found here, but it’s helpful to see them grouped by layer to better understand the garden design.


RORG’s Groundcover Layer consists of grasses, sedges, ferns and several species of forbs that form a dense mat. This layer acts like a “green” mulch that serves to shade out weed species. This layer also helped to define planting zones. During the 2019 establishment, the Groundcover Layer was planted in a dense grid 18 inches on center for easier maintenance.

  • Asarum canadense – Wild Ginger
  • Athyrium filix-femina – Lady Fern
  • Callirhoe involucrata – Purple Poppy Mallow
  • Carex bicknellii – Bicknell’s Sedge
  • Carex pensylvanica – Pennsylvania Sedge
  • Carex rosea – Rosy Sedge
  • Carex emoryi – Emory’s Sedge
  • Deschampsia cespitosa – Tufted Hairgrass
  • Geranium maculatum – Wild Geranium
  • Geranium ‘Rozanne’
  • Heuchera richardsonii – Alum Root
  • Juncus effusus – Common Rush
  • Osmunda cinnamomea – Cinnamon Fern
  • Polemonium reptans – Jacob’s Ladder
  • Polystichum acrostichoides – Christmas Fern
  • Sporobolus heterolepis – Prairie Dropseed
  • Tiarella cordifolia – Foam Flower


RORG’s Structural Layer consists of seven species of shrubs and several species of tall forbs. This layer forms the “bones” of the garden that can be seen year-round.

  • Aronia arbutifolia – Red Chokeberry
  • Ceanothus americanus – New Jersey Tea
  • Cephalanthus occidentalis – Buttonbush
  • Cornus sericea – Red Twig Dogwood
  • Ilex verticillata – Winterberry
  • Lindera benzoin – Spicebush
  • Viburnum dentatum ‘Christom’ – Blue Muffin® Arrowwood Viburnum
  • Aruncus dioicus – Goatsbeard
  • Eutrochium purpureum – Purple Joe Pye Weed
  • Silphium laciniatum – Compass Plant
  • Silphium intergrefolium – Rosinweed


RORG’s Seasonal Layer adds seasonal drifts of color and interest that are iconic in Midwestern landscapes.

  • Antennaria plantaginifolia – Pussytoes
  • Asclepias incarnata – Swamp Milkweed
  • Asclepias sullivantii – Prairie Milkweed
  • Asclepias Tuberosa – Butterflyweed
  • Caltha palustris – Marsh Marigold
  • Chelone glabra – Turtlehead
  • Echinacea pallida – Pale Purple Coneflower
  • Echinacea purpurea – Purple Coneflower
  • Hibiscus laevis – Rose Mallow
  • Actaea racemosa – Black Cohosh
  • Iris virginica var. Shrevei – Blue Flag Iris
  • Lobelia cardinalis – Cardinal Flower
  • Phlox glaberrima – Prairie Phlox
  • Rudbeckia fulgida – Black Eyed Susan
  • Silene regia – Royal Catchfly
  • Stylophorum diphyllum – Celandine Poppy
  • Symphyotrichum laeve – Smooth Blue Aster


During fall 2020, the RORG Team and volunteers installed additional seasonal layer species, including select ephemerals and forbs. Large drifts of these plants throughout the garden add early-season interest and pollinator benefits.


  • Dodecatheon meadia – Shooting Star
  • Mertensia virginica – Virginia Bluebells
  • Camassia scilloides – Wild hyacinth
  • Tulipa ‘Prinses Irene’ – Prinses Irene Tulip

Additional forbs

  • Allium cernuum – Nodding Onion
  • Phlox divaricata – Woodland Phlox


You don’t need to know about the layers to enjoy the garden, but if you are thinking of designing your own space it can be helpful to understand this approach. To learn more, see Rainer and West’s Phyto Studio website and read their book. The RORG Team highly recommends it!

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