Finding Your Foundation

The foundation planting is a basic component of the traditional landscape. Look at the base of almost any home and you'll see one — as well as seeing them around libraries, old banks, courthouses and even garages and outbuildings. The foundation planting seems somehow to be “required.”

The practice of planting shrubs adjacent to the foundations of homes became firmly established in the late Victorian Era, and generations since then have maintained the tradition. Evergreen shrubs were planted to provide old homes with an insulation barrier against cold winter wind and hot summer sun, and to provide a visual screen for cement-block foundations and basement windows. While foundation plantings still serve those purposes on some older homes, the practice of architecture has moved forward: Foundations are better insulated and many are so attractive that it's a shame to hide them.

FOUNDATION'S FUNCTION

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Many historic buildings deserve period landscapes, not that they should all look like giant green woolly bear caterpillars of yews wrapped around houses, or sheared shrubs across the front of houses punctuated with oversized arborvitaes at the corners. And of course they shouldn't cause drainage problems, basement upheavals, irritated painters or damaged roofs. Poor horticultural practices should not be perpetuated just for the sake of historical accuracy. But healthy, interesting, effective foundation plantings can easily be designed with period-appropriate plant materials.

Foundation plantings can serve one of the most important functions of the public landscape: to direct the visitor's attention to the front entryway of a building. Certainly other landscape components can serve this function — decorative doors, walkways, bold railings and architectural planters — but well-placed foundation plantings can also do the job.

Well designed plantings around foundations also can complement the architecture of buildings. Specimen plants and plant groupings can lead the eye to beautiful windows or graceful structural elements without hiding them. Vertical ornamental grasses and narrow trees can reinforce the vertical lines of a house or interrupt the long horizontal lines of a low-profile building. Spreading or weeping trees and masses of low-growing shrubs can help visually bring a large house down to earth and connect it to its surroundings.

Most importantly, foundation plantings aren't just the plantings around the foundation of buildings. When designed effectively, they also form the foundation of the landscape as it transitions from the structure outward toward the farthest edge of the landscape. In other words, they help integrate the building into the landscape.

INTEGRATING NEW CONCEPTS

It's important to move from the static foundation plantings of the past toward more dynamic foundation plantings or integrated landscapes that better serve today's architecture and landscape design. How can we change old foundation plantings to energize them? What might we put in place of traditional foundation plantings in new landscape designs? Here are three ideas that might guide you as you break with the tradition of the classic foundation planting.

First, think about variety. If you're renovating a landscape, count the evergreens in the foundation planting. In some landscapes, evergreen shrubs form more than half the length of the foundation plantings. That line of evergreens forms an outline around the house that cannot be visually penetrated. Rather than help the house integrate with the landscape, such plantings set the house apart and isolate it from the landscape. Since evergreens are not needed as insulation for many new and renovated buildings, other more dynamic plants can replace them. You might leave some evergreens in place for winter interest and replace others with shrubs with winter interest, herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses with seasonal interest, and annuals for summer-long color.

Don't be afraid to add some color. You can plant annuals for months of color, herbaceous perennials for a sequence of color or shrubs for seasonal flower/fruit/leaf color. In the past 15 years, thousands of new plants have been introduced with attributes that make them appropriate for landscape use. If that number seems outrageous, glance through some old textbooks of landscape design — the list of common landscape perennials seems to have been limited to spring bulbs, spring phlox, hosta, daylily and chrysanthemum. And while these perennials were used in other parts of the landscape, they were rarely used in foundation plantings. Now, astilbes, ferns and mosses add a quiet elegance to shaded sides of buildings. The long list of sun perennials used in foundation plantings today includes rudbeckia, baptisia, artemisia and nepeta. Seasonal interest is often added with summer-blooming bulbs such as alliums and agapanthus. The list of annuals used in foundation plantings has changed even more. Few annuals other than geranium were used in traditional plantings. Now dozens of new genera of spectacular, high-performance annuals are available everywhere, and they require little enough maintenance that they are useful even in public landscapes. Vegetative annuals like calibrachoa, scaevola, bacopa and argyranthemum were unknown to most of us 20 years ago; now they're commonplace in containers, flower gardens and yes, even in foundation plantings.

Second, consider our modern lifestyle — it flows. We are much less formal than our forebears from the era when foundation plantings were the rage. Our homes reflect our informality. Yet many traditional landscapes remain a series of concentric circles — there's a house in the middle, surrounded by a foundation planting, then a lawn (often punctuated by a vegetable garden and a flower bed or two) and finally a border formed by trees, fences, hedges and sidewalks. If you let the zones intermingle, the landscape becomes much more interesting, inviting and dynamic. How can you realistically achieve this in a renovation? The first step is to blur the line between the foundation planting and the lawn that usually surrounds it. You can eliminate the impression of the ring around the house by simply making the foundation planting more irregular in its shape, deeper in some places around the house and narrower or nonexistent in others, and by adding zones of mulch or groundcovers that connect the foundation plantings to the rest of the landscape.

One example might involve a shade tree near the house, under which the lawn doesn't perform well. By replacing the lawn with a mixture of shade-loving groundcovers that extend from the house outward, under the canopy of the tree, and adding a few native ephemerals or spring bulbs to the groundcover area, you'll create a much more naturalistic, interesting zone in the landscape. Adding a few shrubs to the zone would reinforce the feeling that the house is connected to the landscape, and that the shade garden connects the tree to the house.

Third, several of the new concepts that guide our landscaping almost preclude the use of a foundation planting altogether. We aim toward sustainable landscapes, apply fewer pesticides, incorporate more native plants, implement more naturalistic designs, integrate a much larger number of plant species and plant many groundcovers other than lawns. When you think about how these concepts interact and reinforce one another, the traditional foundation planting seems a bit out of place. The very need to define the house with a foundation planting, or fill the space between the house and the lawn, melts away. Why think of the foundation planting as a border at all? Why not use shrubs and groundcovers to extend outward from the house in an irregular pattern, toward groupings of other plants?

Foundation plantings as they were once conceived — with those sheared evergreens that continue to hug old houses — remain appropriate in situations where the plantings are healthy and the homes' architecture is of the appropriate era. In other situations, it's time to reassess foundation plantings and develop the zones immediately around houses to be more in line with our modern knowledge of plant materials and plant care, more sustainable methods of landscape management and more relaxed and integrated lifestyles.

Lois Berg Stack is an ornamental horticulture specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension (Orono, Maine).

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