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Design Principles for Foundation Plantings
The transition from the horizontal planes of the lawn to the hard vertical architecture of a home can be abrupt and jarring—unless that transition zone is softened with foundation plantings. The standard means of making this transition is with a blend of low-to-medium sized shrubs, both evergreen and deciduous, perhaps with some flowering garden beds, spring bulbs, and small trees mixed in.
The Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers these design principles you can keep in mind when planning your foundation plantings.
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- Line: In any design, where it is indoors or outdoors, line refers to the outline of shapes in a design—both the overall outline of a planting area itself, as well as the outline of major shapes within the landscape. The eye follows these lines, and their character creates a mood. Gentle, slow curves are considered restful, while jagged lines and strong verticals create tension and energy.
- Form: This refers to the solid shapes defines by the objects within the foundation planting. Some forms dramatic, attracting attention. Good landscape plantings, including foundations, are planned with an eye to how the shapes relate to one another within the planting area.
- Structure: A foundation planting, like any garden design, is built around a structure of hardscape materials and the permanent major plantings. For example, a landscape planting bed might use a short retaining wall, a ground covering of shredded bark, and a backdrop perennial evergreen shrubs as the structure around which other plantings are organized. Think of structure as the floors and walls of a planting area.
- Texture: The feeling or mood of a foundation planting is governed largely by the texture of the materials within the planting bed. Rough, coarse textures are seen as informal and visually dominant, while fine, smooth textures provide a more formal, elegant feeling. Good landscape designs carefully arrange and contrast the different textures. Make sure to use more than one texture to keep things interesting, and always consider how the different textures look next to one another.
- Color: Consider how the colors of the stone, brick, siding, and trim in your home will work with the foliage and flower colors in the foundation planting bed. Echo some of the house colors in your plant choices to create a sense of unity. Use contrasting colors where you want to create an accent or drama. Front entry foundation plantings usually use fairly simple color schemes, dominated by green. Brightly colored plants—both foliage plants and flowering plants—are used in limited numbers for drama and emphasis.
Now let's examine some different approaches to landscape plantings.
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A Basic Shrub Arrangement
This first example is as basic as it gets. This foundation planting of small shrubs keeps the area around the house clean but still provides interest through color and texture. This is a low-maintenance planting, where year-round evergreen shrubs provide varying green shades year-round, with a deciduous shrub or two to provide seasonal change.
The variation in heights and colors prevent the foundation bed from becoming monotonous. The red of the barberry shrub (far left) and the gold of the false cypress (foreground) provide the color variation, while variation in height is provided by the tall arborvitae and the juniper ground cover.
Simplicity combined with some variation in color and size/shape creates a very satisfying classic foundation planting.Continue to 3 of 19 below.
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Raised Foundation Planting Behind a Retaining Wall
This foundation bed offers a twist, as it is located behind a retaining wall. This strategy both elevates the entire foundation planting area while also offering hardscape texture in the carefully constructed stone wall. This is a good solution where a home's foundation is especially high, as happens when a home is built on a slope or is otherwise elevated. The retaining wall structure offers a tiered, step-down approach that makes the transition more gradual.
This example, with its wide expanse, can get away with having a ground cover (pachysandra) planted in behind a hedgerow of shrubs (boxwoods). Wood chip mulch offers a visual echo of the natural weathered-wood siding of the home.
Raised beds and terraces can offer a good solution for foundation plantings where the home foundation is especially high.Continue to 4 of 19 below.
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Red-Green-Gold Foundation Theme
This foundation planting is pleasing not only for its use of complementary colors but also through its uniform distribution of plant material. The red-green-gold combination is anchored by a Japanese maple tree that provides deep red color, with three dwarf Alberta spruces evenly spaced to tie the whole design together. Various other mounding shrubs add color and shape variety to the overall design.
Repetition of plant material in a foundation planting creates a sense of unity.Continue to 5 of 19 below.
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Carefully Designed Symmetry
Another way to achieve a clean, unified look in foundation plantings is by using symmetry. Symmetrical plantings are most often used in front entry plantings, especially for homes with a formal architectural style, but the strategy can be problematic.
It can be difficult to predict exactly the heights that plants will achieve when mature, and shrubs that start the same size when planted may differ by many feet in a few years. Or, one shrub may succumb to the disease, leaving a lonely, out-of-place partner on the other side of the layout. In this example, the dark green spruce tree on the left is already slightly too large to serve as an effective "bookend" for its counterpart on the right.
Careful, repeated pruning may be necessary to maintain the precision of symmetrical foundation plantings, and when a replacement is necessary, be prepared to pay a premium price to install a large, mature specimen to match its opposite.
Symmetry is an eye-grabbing foundation planting strategy, but it is difficult to maintain.Continue to 6 of 19 below.
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Shrubbery can be used for screening out eyesores, such as electrical boxes, natural gas meters, or air conditioning compressors. Although you can't see it in this well-designed example, azaleas, yews and euonymus shrubs are used here hide several utility features on the foundation wall.
These homeowners have kept all the plantings low and at the same height to keep the attractive windows visible from the outside, as well as to preserve the view from indoors. But although the shape and size of the shrubs are somewhat monotonous, there is variety in the color, with evergreen yews providing deep greens, euonymus providing light variegated greens, and azaleas providing bronze foliage that will turn red in autumn. And the azaleas will also add colorful flowers to the display in spring.
Foundation planting is a general strategy for making transitions between lawn and home, but they also can be used strategically to hide specific features.Continue to 7 of 19 below.
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Match the Home Style
The "less is more" approach in this example may seem too spartan to some viewers, but it is also consistent with the very simple colonial Cape Cod style of this home. Although this foundation bed will become fuller as it matures, it will always be a simple, clean approach that does not detract from the spare architectural style of the home.
When designing a foundation planting, take your cue from the architectural style of the home, choosing shrub species, shapes, and arrangements that are consistent with the look of the residence.Continue to 8 of 19 below.
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Consider Negative Space
In landscape design, the term negative space refers to the visual spaces that remain when you take out the positive spaces—the actual shrubs or other objects placed within the larger space. In the context of foundation plantings, it means that empty spaces around individual shrubs or trees should be considered as an aspect of the design.
Foundation plantings can be designed so they are very dense—solid groupings of shrubs and other plantings with no spaces in between—or they can be designed so that there is negative space between or around the shrubs.
In this example, notice how the foundation planting extends out from the main planting area in a peninsula of colorful low-growing shrubs. This design works because of the empty, negative space around this jutting segment of foundation bed. Because of the negative space, the shrubs and small Japanese maple trees closest to the viewer's eye seem to flow out from the brick wall and into the lawn like a colorful glacier.
When planning a foundation bed, make sure to consider the empty, negative space as a design element.Continue to 9 of 19 below.
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A Mix of Evergreen and Flowering Shrubs
In this example, the foundation planting has been designed to include both evergreen and deciduous flowering shrubs—in this case, yews and azaleas. This landscape is shown in spring when the azaleas bloom in bright reds that complement the colors of the brick and wooden shutters in the house. A small tree adds visual interest by injecting a vertical element into the horizontal design.
The inclusion of flowering shrubs introduces seasonal variety into a foundation planting design that is anchored by year-round dark green colors of the yews.
Good foundation plantings are often anchored by evergreen trees and shrubs, with flowering shrubs added for seasonal variety.Continue to 10 of 19 below.
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Consider the Mulch
The material you use to mulch should be considered a part of the design, chosen for its impact on the overall look of the landscape. Mulches should be chosen for their color and texture, but they also serve a practical function in controlling weeds. Organic mulches, such as compost, also help feed foundation plants.
In this example, the homeowner has chosen a white stone to cover the ground around the plants, offering a visual blend with the white siding of the house. Crushed stone and gravel "mulches" are not to everyone's liking, but they can work well in some landscapes. Other choices include shredded wood, bark chips, cocoa-bean mulch, or even synthetic materials, such as recycled rubber mulch.
Mulches can be used to create consistency with the siding materials of a home or to frame and set off the foundation shrubs. Whitestone, for example, tends to frame and highlight whatever is planted within it, while shredded wood and bark chips tend to recede into the background without drawing attention.
Make sure to consider the impact of the mulch you use to surround the shrubs and trees in your foundation planting.Continue to 11 of 19 below.
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Vary the Colors of Shrubs
Vary the colors in a foundation bed to achieve visual interest. Even if you are using nothing but low-maintenance evergreen shrubs, remember that there are many shades of green, ranging from the almost black color of yews to the silver-blue of spruce and juniper shrubs.
This newly planted foundation will take a few years to reach maturity, but one day the blue-colored junipers and gold-colored false cypress ('Gold Mops') will help create an easy-maintenance foundation bed that still has good color variety.
Strive for color variations in the foliage of your foundation shrubs.Continue to 12 of 19 below.
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Consider Foundation Plantings for Other Landscape Features
The foundation of the home itself is where most of the attention goes, but the same strategies can be used on other landscape features, such as lamp posts, mail-box posts, or utility features set away from the house. Detached garages, sheds, gazebos, patios and decks are other places to consider the use of foundation shrubs. In this example, a large, stark lamp post is softened with some small shrubs planted around the base.
Foundation shrubs can be used many places in a landscape—wherever you want to soften the look of a man-made structure.Continue to 13 of 19 below.
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Climbing Roses as Foundation Shrubs
The designer of this foundation bed had the right idea: Climbing (rambler) rose bushes can be used as foundation shrubs to inject a vertical element. A variety of other flowering vines could also be used, such as clematis, climbing hydrangeas, and jasmine. The best plants will be those that require training onto a trellis. Avoid true clinging vines, which can be invasive and even damage the brick or siding on your home. And trellises themselves can be interesting and attractive design elements.
Flowering climbers set behind foundation shrubs and trained upward on trellises create a delightful visual statement.Continue to 14 of 19 below.
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Use Spring Bulbs
Foundation beds offer a great place to use spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and crocus. In this example, the foundation planting is set behind a retaining wall that lifts it to a great viewing height. This very young foundation bed will look marvelous in a few years, with spring bulbs peeking up in the early spring, then vanishing as other perennials fill in as spring gives way to summer.
Note that this foundation bed uses very few shrubs—it is a foundation bed for a true flower-gardening enthusiast. For flower-gardeners, the foundation beds offer a great place to pursue a beloved hobby.
Spring bulbs and other flowering plants often work very effectively in foundation beds.Continue to 15 of 19 below.
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Many foundations have sloped areas, such as homes with walk-out basements or tuck-under garages. Slopes offer some challenges for foundation plantings since they can be hard to maintain and the soil tends to get very dry. Low, creeping evergreen shrubs often work quite well in these locations. Included in this example are false cypress 'Gold Mops' and mugo pine.
Good plant selection can be critical in sloped foundation plantings.Continue to 16 of 19 below.
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Vary Shrub Heights
Vary the heights of your shrubs in a foundation bed to achieve interest. But do this carefully, since variety can rather easily give way to chaos. Layering plants in a foundation planting allows you to inject variety while also affording an organizing principle for you to follow.
In this example, the foundation planting includes three layers of shrubs. A dwarf Alberta spruce is in the back row. As the tallest shrub in the foundation planting, it raises the viewer's eye level above the middle row of shrubs. Juniper ground-cover shrubs are the perfect low plant for the outermost layer of a foundation planting. Being evergreen, their foliage will be on display year-round, except, perhaps, for when they're blanketed by a covering of white snow.
Also, note how the dwarf Alberta spruce is now nearly tall enough to screen out the electrical box on the house's exterior. One of the functions of foundation shrubs is to perform this kind of screening.
Varying the heights of shrubs and other plants is critical to successful foundation planting.Continue to 17 of 19 below.
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Bold Seasonal Color
Although this not a great example of foundation planting design principles, the bold yellow display of forsythia shrubs and daffodils makes it all worthwhile for this homeowner. The strong yellow theme looks especially good against the red brick walls of the home.
While most homeowners prefer foundation plantings that have a consistently pleasant look year-round, some homeowners like to choose foundation plantings to make this kind of dramatic statement during particular seasons. For example, you might choose deciduous shrubs that "pop" with incredible October foliage color.
Making a strong seasonal color statement may come at the expense of year-long elegance. But it can make your home the center of attention during the spring bloom period or fall color season.Continue to 18 of 19 below.
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Foundation Plantings Around Chimneys
People who have chimneys running up the side of the house wall can use this architectural feature for unique foundation strategies. This can be a place that is ideal for unusually large or tall shrubs, or even small trees.
In this example, the owners flanked their chimney with hemlocks (shrub form), complemented by other foundation plants, including large rhododendrons for spring color.
Unique architectural features in the home may call for unique foundation planting strategies.Continue to 19 of 19 below.
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Mixed Foundation Garden
Foundation beds can be a great place for mixed gardens that include a wide variety of plants, including spring flowers. Homeowners savvy about gardening can use evergreen shrubs for the "bones" of the foundation planting beds, then supplement with plants offering spring blooms, summer flowers, and/or fall foliage. The evergreen shrubs will "be there for you" in your landscaping year-round, while the other plants create the seasonal interest.
In this example, the homeowners have achieved a knockout foundation planting bed for spring, graced by plants such as creeping phlox, yellow alyssum, azaleas, and andromeda (Pieris). The andromeda shrubs serve double duty, providing not only spring flowers but also evergreen foliage.
Foundation planting areas offer a great place for mixed garden beds anchored by traditional foundation shrubs.