Just as a home must be built on strong foundations if it is to last, a garden too needs strong foundations to give it structure and form. The name Foundation Plants is sometimes used just for plants put around your house to literally hide the foundations, but they are better thought of as the structural plants used all through the garden. This would include hedges big and small; clipped plants used as accents and to define spaces; the pair of plants used to flank a doorway or a gateway; trees for avenues; and yes, those rounded evergreens, often clipped, that blend the hard, vertical geometry of a house into the softer informal shapes of the landscape in the main garden.
Typically, Foundation Plants are evergreens of both the broad-leaf and conifer kinds, depending on your taste and your climate. They will normally have green leaves – green in all its diversity of tones and depth – to make a neutral background for the colored shrubs and flowering shrubs that will fill the beds in the rest of your garden. In a more traditional garden, they might be clipped into neat hedges or rounded specimens, but there are also naturally-compact plants, that need no clipping, for a less formal and lower-maintenance look.
If you are creating a new garden, this is where you need to begin. Build a framework for your garden, and then add the rest of your plants. If you just fill your garden with a random selection of plants you like the look of, the result will be uncertain and disordered. But if your children scrawl over your walls with Crayola, put a frame around it and call it art. That frame is what Foundation Plants do for the various forms and colors of the many plants we bring into our gardens. Once you have a good frame, you can plant almost anything you want, and it will look great. Take care of your foundations, and the rest will take care of itself.
We build our house from the foundations up, and in the garden there are different kinds of foundations needed – let’s take a look:
Unless you live out in a rural area, you probably have neighbors right beside you. Most of us want to live our family-life in private, so separating our gardens from the ones next door is a common priority. Usually that screening is needed all year round, so we rely on dense evergreens to create it. We want that screening soon, so fast-growing trees are used.
You will find suitable plants for basic boundaries, and more details on their uses and how to establish them, on our site in the area of Privacy Trees. There you will find the major plants used for important backgrounds – Thuja Green Giant; Emerald Green Arborvitae; Leyland Cypress; Nellie Stevens Holly; and Cherry Laurel.
When it comes to hedges, you can make a hedge out of just about any plant, with trimming, but many of our Foundation Plants are particularly suitable for hedges separating the internal parts of our gardens. This could be a low, 8-inch Boxwood hedge along a path or around a bed. It could be a taller barrier made of Cherry Laurel or Privet. For a quick hedge, nothing grows as fast as Privet. Although sometimes hated, this leafy evergreen is incredibly useful when you need a hedge, and you need it yesterday. It grows several feet a year, and soon gives you year-round screening. A more informal barrier that you can see over might be made of Abelia, or just about any easy-care and fast-growing plant.
A newly-built home is fresh and new, but it is also raw and bare. It stands there with all its parts showing – the concrete of the foundations, oil tanks, air-con units, meters – and its walls meet the ground at a sharp, severe angle. Steps and paths look hard and naked. What we want is to mask those ugly elements, and soften those hard angles, so that your garden reaches up and embraces your home in its arms. To show that we are still in charge, we often clip these plants, making them rounded and denser. That way those more structured shapes transition into the unclipped plants further away, and the garden seems to open out around your home. Another reason to used clipped plants near the house is that you want the building to look held by the plants, not engulfed in their wildness.
We also don’t want these plants to block windows, crowd doors, or grow too tall. The plants we use in this area should be neater and naturally compact, with simple leaves. We need them all year round, so they will usually be evergreens. Besides the plants you will find in this section, other plants used around the house include the many evergreens like Yew or Arborvitae, as well as Myrtle, Holly, Photinia and Juniper. You will find these among our Privacy Trees, but they are also important Foundation Plants.
The roundness of Nature hates the hard angles of sharp corners – yet our garden spaces are full of them. It could be the corners of your yard, of the angle where two walls of your house meet. The natural roundness of Foundation Plants fills these spaces perfectly, and the impact is often amazing – that hard, empty space is now so much softer and more inviting. These corners can be shady, so you need something tolerant of that, and what could be better than an Aucuba Plant, an incredible tough plant whose gold-splashed leaves brighten the darkest corner.
We lay out our garden beds according to the space we have, and sometimes this leaves us with big beds to fill. Especially towards the back of beds, we don’t need complicated bushes that need lots of pruning and care. We need simple and solid. Foundation Plants are perfect for this, and they make filling the rest of the bed more feasible, while giving it a great background. Bigger boxwood plants, Aucuba, and Cherry Laurels are all great for this, depending on the scale of your garden. In smaller beds Abelia is a great background shrub, with the bonus of attractive flowers.
Since the purpose of Foundation Plants is to be a background, most of the ones used are simple, bushy plants with plain foliage. Keep the colorful shrubs for the foreground and fill in your background garden spaces with simple and green.
The best Foundation Plants will naturally send up lots of stems from ground level, and form a dense, rounded bush by themselves. The occasional trim while they are growing is better than waiting until they become too large. Avoid plants that grow tall and slim, except as accents, and be careful when planting in front of windows that the bush will stay low. If you end up needing to trim all the time just to see out, you won’t enjoy that.
Using colorful shrubs is a big trend in gardens, but Foundation Plants are usually best in green. Soothing green should flow through your planting, as a background for brighter plants, but also to keep your garden calm and tranquil, and prevent it looking garish and agitated. We make an exception for Aucuba, with its gold-splashed leaves, because it is so tough in deep shade, and the color helps to brighten those dark corners.
In most parts of the country you are going to choose evergreens. The problem with deciduous plants for foundation planting is their bareness in winter. As if that time wasn’t bleak enough, especially in colder zones, we don’t want to see right through a hedge, or expose bare walls in winter. Where you can, stick to evergreens of one kind or another. In colder parts this will often include conifers like Arborvitae, which can cope with the weather. In warmer areas you can use mostly broad-leaf evergreens, which bring a lusher look.
This depends on how much time you have available, and the look you want. Most of the plants in this section grow naturally bushy, and they don’t need a lot of trimming. Some plants seem to be magnets for shears, and almost everyone trims boxwood. Yet those plants will naturally form dense plants, and mature untrimmed boxwoods are lovely plants that we should see much more in gardens. That classic look of rounded bushes beside your home is great, but it does need a lot of regular work. You can avoid most of the work, and still have a neat look, if you choose wisely and trim strategically.
The best Foundation Plants take care of themselves. Avoid fussy plants that need attention. Don’t worry, all the plants we have listed in this section are easy to grow and adaptable.
Like all plants, some work at the beginning pays the biggest dividends. Soil preparation and watering young plants regularly during their first year is vital for success. Just because a plant is tough doesn’t mean it won’t give much more with a little care. We want these plants to fill their chosen spaces quickly, so fertilizing and watering during dry periods when they are young will mean that later you can ignore them. Pests and diseases are rare in these plants, so you won’t need to worry about spraying, or see your plants looking ugly and damaged.
The best time to trim Foundation Plants is when they are developing. We want solid plants, with dense branching, and that is easy to develop with young plants. Removing the growing tips encourages bushes to branch out, and this ‘pinching’ is best done when your plants are young. Whenever you see a strong branch shooting up, take out the tip, and watch it expand into a whole clump of stems.
If you want foliage right to the ground, always trim your bushes into dome shapes. The top needs to be narrower than the bottom, or the lower branches will die out. Since tops grow faster than bottoms, this means you must take more growth away at the top. Don’t just go over your plants uniformly – consider the final shape. Fat, rounded domes look best, but for feature plants you can also do a little topiary. This is easy with plants like boxwood, where you can make simple cones or square pyramids, more complicated spirals and balls, or even statues of your dog.
For hedges, you should always trim the top narrower than the bottom, so that the sides slope inwards a little. This keeps the lowest parts green and healthy. If the top gets too wide, the lower branches will begin to die, opening spaces in your hedge just where you don’t want them.
Trimming of these plants can be done at almost any season but avoid mid-winter or during the dry heat of summer, when plants can suffer. Early fall is an ideal time, as the plants will leaf out a little and look great all winter and in spring. Once the first flush of spring growth has finished, trim again for a neat summer. If you have neglected your plants, trim harder in early spring, before the new growth comes, but after the coldest weather has gone. That way they will quickly leaf out and look good again.
Plants with larger leaves, like Aucuba and Cherry Laurel, are lest trimmed with pruners, so that the leaves don’t get cut. Cut leaves develop brown edges and look unsightly. As the plants get bigger the leaves will get smaller, if you have trimmed them regularly, so you can then use shears. Keep your tools sharp, as rough, torn cuts turn brown and don’t re-sprout so well. For smaller plants and detailed topiary sharp hand-shears do the best job, but of course for larger plants power trimmers are so much easier and faster.
We have a good selection of all the main Foundation Plants, either in this section, or under Privacy Trees. Pick the mature sizes that will fit the places you are planting in, so that the plants don’t outgrow them. Oversized plants soon become a burden, and take the pleasure out of your garden.
These are lovely evergreens for gardens in warmer zones, from zone 6 onwards. They like sunny places, and they stay neat and compact without much trimming. Their small flowers add a pretty touch of pink buds and white flowers, and hummingbirds love them. Some have arching branches for a more casual look, and others are more compact. These are great plants for shorter hedges.
If you have deep shade in your garden, it can be hard to find plants that will grow. Aucuba, also known as Gold Dust Plants, are the answer. Their large leaves are scattered with golden spots, and this tough plant hangs in and grows where most other plants will fail. It is attractive, and it can easily be pruned into compact sizes. It is perfect in warmer zones, beginning in zone 7, and its evergreen leaves stay fresh all through the winter months.
These well-known shrubs are the #1 choice when it comes to smaller hedges and compact specimens. Their tiny, neat leaves make them very easy to trim as tightly as you want, and with so many to choose from you can find ones suitable for almost all zones, and all sizes. It might take a little time, but 6-foot hedges are possible, and 6-inch ones too. You can’t have too much boxwood in the garden.
Big, bold and tough as nails, Cherry Laurels are reliable evergreens from zone 6 onwards. ‘Otto Luyken’ is the standard, and it will reach 10 feet tall if untrimmed. In full sun, or in shady places too, these plants are reliable ways to fill spaces, and their glossy, lighter green leaves always look great. Untrimmed plants put on a surprising display of scented white flowers in spring. For smaller spaces, Chestnut Hill stays just 3 or 4 feet tall, while if you have big areas to fill, the Skip Cherry Laurel (‘Schipkaensis’) does the trick, reaching 18 feet tall and up to 30 feet wide in a surprisingly small time.
Love it or hate it, there is no denying that Privet Hedges get the job done. Able to grow just about anywhere, and resistant to drought, their neat evergreen leaves are glossy and handsome. If you time your trimming you can enjoy the sweetly-scented flowers, and then trim them off so you have no troublesome seeds produced. They are thoroughly hardy in zone 7, but for a double treat, the Jack Frost Privet not only grows in zone 6, and the neat white edge on the leaves makes a sparkling hedge that really brightens things up.
Foundation Plants really are the basis of the structure of your garden – without them it can be chaos out there. Get that structure in place early, with hedges, plants around the house, and filling empty spaces. Then you can shop for plants with colored leaves or bright flowers, knowing that wherever you put them they have a good background that will show them off beautifully.