How to Create a Fabulous Foundation Planting

Learn why foundation plantings still serve a purpose

Home with foundation planting
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At the most basic level, foundation plantings are simply beds of plants (often dominated by shrubs) installed along house foundations. The classic style consists of three parts:

While this is the "classic" style, not all foundation plantings conform to it. Nonetheless, the classic style is a standard, from which people can either choose to deviate in creative ways or draw inspiration.

Reason to Install Foundation Plantings

Traditionally, shrubs were installed along a house wall to hide the raised concrete foundations that were prevalent at the time in some regions. Many no longer feel the need to install such shrubs, because home styles have changed: There's less house foundation to hide. That's why some designers now choose to install only an entryway planting and corner plantings: They feel there's no need to bridge the gap between these.

We can list at least five possible objections to this approach:

  • While a raised house foundation may be unattractive, a long uninterrupted wall of vinyl siding isn’t especially appealing, either.
  • Shrubs soften the hard lines of a house, even one with attractive siding.
  • Newly-built homes are sometimes plunked onto an expanse of lawn devoid of mature trees. A bed of shrubs can quickly counteract this rather bleak look.
  • When landscaping in small spaces, you may just plain need the extra space if you enjoy growing a particular shrub.
  • If you choose evergreen shrubs for your project, you can promote energy efficiency.

Evergreen shrubs planted along a house wall can reduce heating costs by creating an insulating dead air space around a home's foundation. For, even if just a few inches of concrete foundation are exposed, that is a potential route for cold air to enter your house. The insulation value provided by evergreen shrubs is minimal, yes, but every little bit helps.

Preliminary Considerations

If you're the organized type, you'll want to begin with a landscape design plan. Beyond that, keep the following in mind:

  • Contact your local utility companies before digging: They’ll mark the areas where digging is off-limits, due to the presence of power lines, etc. It's free, it's easy, and it's (often) the law.
  • In selecting plants, think in terms of mature height, not the height of the plant when you see it at the nursery. That cute little shrub at the nursery may soon attain sufficient height to block the view from your window. In a small space, dwarf shrubs such as Bobo hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata 'Ilvobo') may work better than their larger counterparts.
  • Which plants like sun? And which prefer shade? Such considerations will help determine what you buy and where you can plant it (north, east, south, or west wall).

If you're creating the classic foundation planting divided into three parts, understand that the criteria for selecting landscape shrubbery for foundation plantings will differ according to which of the three parts you're working on. While tastes in planting styles vary greatly, most people agree on one idea: The focal point of a foundation planting should be the entryway planting.

The Entryway Planting

The entryway planting serves as the focal point for the same reason we festoon the front door with holiday decorations: to inject a sense of welcome into such a critical area of the property, that transitional area from outdoors to indoors.

However, the rationale goes beyond that. Shrubs for foundation plantings should complement the house they adjoin. Thus, just as, architecturally, the front door should be the focal point on that wall of the house, so the foundation shrubs in the entryway design should be the biggest attention-grabbers of the overall foundation planting. Aesthetically, the entryway planting and the front door should work hand-in-hand.

Using symmetry is a way to ensure that the shrubs in the entryway planting will receive the viewer's focus. Such symmetry is often achieved conveniently through the use of container plants (urns and whiskey barrels are examples of popular containers). A commonly used plant for such symmetrical arrangements, whether planted in the ground or in a container, is the dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca 'Conica'). Slow-growing dwarf Alberta spruces achieve just enough size to make a statement while remaining compact for quite a few years. The fact that they are evergreens is also helpful since that means they'll provide visual interest year-round.

The Corner Plantings

Smart plant usage at the corners of a house is important, too, since these plants can frame the house, visually. To that end, plant these foundation shrubs (or small trees) far enough away from the corners so that, even at maturity, they won't obscure the corners of the house.

Corner plantings should be taller than the rest. Let scale be your guide, adjusting allowable plant height according to the height of your house.

However, sometimes you'll want to tweak the scale, so as to correct something in the architecture you don't like. For instance, perhaps you feel that your ranch-style home gives too horizontal an impression. To correct this, plant something tall and skinny at each corner, such as the very columnar North Pole arborvitae trees (Thuja occidentalis 'Art Boe'). Such corner plantings will break up the home's horizontality and lead the eye upwards.

By contrast, it is the verticality of the corners that you may wish to combat with a house that is relatively tall, compared to its width. In this case, a small tree with a horizontal branching habit can soften the home's vertical lines. Dogwoods (Cornus spp.) are an example. A dogwood variety that stays short (12 to 15 feet) but is relatively wide, the pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), is often a good choice for corner plantings.

Plants That Bridge the Gaps in Foundation Plantings

The remaining foundation plants bridge the gaps between the entryway planting and corner plantings. These plants don't enjoy the sexy roles of the plants we've been considering so far, but they should still be selected with a purpose in mind. Most importantly, they should work in harmony with the entryway and corner plantings. Here are some more things to keep in mind:

  • Dwarf shrubs are preferable to something that you'll have to prune a lot if you prefer a low-maintenance landscape design.
  • But don't think that you are limited to shrubs! Ornamental grasses can provide another tall-but-not-too-tall option for inserting an element of verticality.
  • Annual and perennial flowers can be installed in front of foundation shrubs, giving you more options for varying textures and injecting color into foundation plantings.

How Close to the House to Place Foundation Shrubs

Having shrubbery right up against your house isn't good for the house, the shrubbery, or for you (because it makes maintenance harder). So keep the following guidelines in mind when planning a foundation planting:

Locate good-sized shrubs (6 feet or wider at maturity) in such a way that their mature foliage will remain at least 5 feet away from the house. You can get away with planting shrubs that stay smaller a bit closer to the house. Where you live also makes a difference. In hot, humid climates, you'll want more air circulating between the house and the foundation shrubs to discourage rot. Adequate spacing between the plants themselves, too, is important, to reduce disease and maintenance.

At least two more reasons readily suggest themselves for keeping foundation shrubs a reasonable distance away from the house:

  • You'll want adequate access to your house in order to work on it.
  • Foundation shrubs growing right under the eaves of a house would be deprived of rainfall.

Mulch your foundation plants to cut down on irrigation needs and weed growth. A well-chosen mulch also adds to the overall visual impact of your design. For instance, you may be able to find a mulch that picks up a color in your home. But there are some special considerations when mulching close to a house.

Varying Color, Even With "Evergreens" 

Your foundation plants can also, in some cases, pick up colors in your home, especially if you will be incorporating some flowering shrubs or trees. But despite their name, remember that "evergreen" foundation shrubs aren't necessarily green and therefore do present some options for varying the colors in your color scheme. There are evergreen bushes with gold colors and others with blue colors.

The use of annuals and perennials in front of the taller foundation plants offers further opportunity to build a color scheme.

As much as color is worth considering, so is texture. Try varying plant textures to increase visual interest. Needled evergreens, such as yews (Taxus spp.), offer quite a different texture from broadleaf specimens, such as Rhododendron shrubs.

Shape of the Planting Bed

In traditional foundation plantings, the plants were normally arranged in linear beds, in more or less straight lines paralleling the house wall. For plantings consisting of hedges of evergreen shrubs, this made sense from a maintenance standpoint: straight hedges are easier to trim than those with irregular shapes. Also, in urban landscaping, where homes may sit just a few feet back from the street, linear beds may be more practical if you want to have a lawn, too (space is limited).

Many people, however, now prefer curved foundation plantings. Indeed, by curving foundation plantings out away from the house, extra room is provided for the incorporation of additional elements, such as water features. There's another benefit from curved beds: By bringing foundation plants out further away from the house, you have more opportunity to layer the planting, varying plant height such that the tallest plants rest in the back of the bed, while the shortest ones are displayed up front.

Foundation plantings work best visually when chosen with the bigger picture in mind. What plants already exist (or will later exist) in your landscape should be echoed by those in your foundation planting. This helps achieve a sense of unity in the yard.