Foundation Plantings

Do They Still Serve a Purpose, or Are They Outdated?

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:

  1. A planting for an entryway design.
  2. Plantings on the corners of the house foundation.
  3. And plantings that bridge the gap between these.

The term "classic" style is used above to acknowledge the fact that not all beds planted along house foundations conform to this tripartite model. Indeed, the majority probably will not. Nonetheless, we may regard the classic style as a standard -- from which people either deviate or draw inspiration.

Why Install Foundation Plantings?

Traditionally, shrubs were installed along a house wall to hide the raised house 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 (less house foundation to hide). At the very least, such critics would argue, while parts 1 and 2 above may still be desirable in some circumstances, there is usually no need to bridge the gap between these (that is, part 3).

Playing devil’s advocate, one could list at least five objections to this opinion (objections pertinent in at least some instances):

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

What is meant by this fifth point is that evergreen shrubs planted along a house wall can reduce heating costs by creating something of 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 are the organized type, you will 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 -- in many regions -- it's 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 may work better than their larger counterparts.
  • Which plants like sun? Which prefer shade? Such considerations will help determine what you buy and where you can plant it (north, east, south, or west wall).

As mentioned earlier, foundation plantings can be divided into three parts. The criteria for selecting landscape shrubbery for foundation plantings will differ, accordingly. Learn about plant selection for each of the three parts below (the discussion will be restricted to the front-door side of your house), beginning with the entryway design. While tastes in planting styles vary greatly, most people agree on one idea: namely, that the focal point of a foundation planting should be the entryway design.

The Entryway Design

Why should the shrubbery of the entryway design serve as the focal point? Well, why do we festoon the front door and porch with outdoor decorations? Isn't it, in part, to inject a sense of welcome into such a critical area of the property, that transitional area from outdoors to indoors? For the same reason, special importance should be attached to the shrubbery in an entryway design during plant selection.

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 design and the front door should work hand-in-hand.

But how can we ensure that the foundation shrubs in the entryway design will receive the viewer's focus? Although it can be over-used, many of us are instinctively attracted by symmetry. 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 spruceDwarf Alberta spruces achieve just enough size to make a statement without getting in the way (not for quite a few years, at least). The fact that they are evergreen shrubs is also helpful since that means they will provide visual interest year round.

The Corners of the House

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 will want to tweak the scale, so as to correct what you might view as a "fault" in the architecture. 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 North Pole arborvitae trees. 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 are an example; a variety that stays short (12-15 feet), the pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), is often a good choice for corner plantings.

More Shrubs for Foundation Plantings and Other Plants

The remaining foundation shrubbery bridges the gaps in the foundation planting, between the entryway design and the corners. 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. First and foremost, of course, they should work in harmony with the foundation shrubs we've already been considering. But beyond that, here are some things to keep in mind:

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

How Close to the House Should You 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 tall or higher 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 shorter a bit closer to the house. Where you live also makes some difference. In hot, humid climates, you will 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:

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

You will want to mulch your foundation plants to cut down on irrigation needs and weed growth. A well-chosen mulch placed around your foundation plants also adds to the overall visual impact of your landscape 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. For more information on the latter, see "Termite Control and Mulching." 

Varying Color, Even With "Evergreens" 

Speaking of color, your foundation plants themselves can, 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 all green and therefore do present some options for varying the colors in your landscape design color scheme. There are bushes with gold colors, for instance.

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

Playing With Texture

As much as color is worth considering, so is texture. Try varying plant textures to increase visual interest. Needled evergreen foundation shrubs, such as yews, offer quite a different texture from broadleaf specimens, such as rhododendron shrubs.

Shape of the Planting Bed

In the traditional foundation plantings mentioned earlier, foundation plants were often arranged in linear beds -- that is, in more or less straight lines paralleling the house wall. In cases where such foundation plantings consisted largely 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.

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 landscape design elements, such as water features. There is 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 Plants and the Overall Landscape Design

Finally, remember that foundation plants work best visually when chosen with the bigger picture in mind. What plants already exist (or will later exist) in your landscape design? By echoing those plants in your foundation planting, you can achieve a sense of unity in the yard.