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What is Foundation Planting?

April 22, 2019

Written by Dave G.

In the extended plant descriptions and advice which are a unique feature of The Tree Center website – and a great resource for our customers – we often describe a plant as being ‘suitable for foundation planting’. Experienced gardeners will know exactly what we are talking about, but new gardeners may be a little mystified. So let’s talk about this, and look at the features of plants you can choose for this important task.

In a few words, foundation planting is the plants you put immediately around your home, but why is it important, and why are some plants better suited for it than others?

Why Do You Need Foundation Planting?

First, consider your home standing on its lot – big or small. Trees and plants come in every shape, but straight lines and perfect geometry is not a feature of natural things. Your home is all about straight lines, with perhaps rounded arches and circles added. Those two things – the irregular forms of Nature and the strict geometry of architecture – don’t fit together very well. The function of the foundation planting you do is to solve that problem. A famous garden designer called Russell Page once said that close to a house the structures and plants should reflect the formal geometry of the home, and further away they should reflect the natural geometry of Nature. Wise words that are the basis of our approach to laying out any garden, and they sum up exactly what foundation planting is all about.

The foundation planting in your garden is the plants you put around the house, close to the walls, under the windows, and beside the doors. It is both the ‘foundation’ of your garden design, and it goes around the foundations of your home. Those foundations are necessarily visible. Your damp-course is above the soil level, and often homes are built on a low mound, to allow for basement windows, and to keep your house ‘high and dry’ above the surrounding soil. There are often also units like air-con, or meter systems against wall, which look ugly. Those very necessary engineering features only emphasize how ‘alien’ those straight lines and rectangular structures are when placed among trees and rounded shrubs.

The Purpose of Foundation Planting

Because of this uncomfortable fit between a house and the plants around it – already there or yet to be planted – we need to choose the plants and style of this transition area carefully, which will lead us naturally from architecture to nature, from geometry to naturalness, and from what we make to what nature makes.

The secret is to use plants with denser, more ‘formal’ shapes for the bulk of what we put around the house, keeping informal and more casual shapes for further away, so that we have a sense that architecture surrenders to Nature (as it should) once we move away from what we humans have made. By doing this our minds will be more at ease, and we will feel more comfortable in our gardens. Our houses will not stick out as obstructions (no matter how beautiful the architecture is), but instead look like they belong in the wider world, which we all have a right to feel.

We can think of foundation planting as a transition zone, and the plants in it should be neat and dense, often evergreen, and reflect the geometry of our buildings. A formal garden, with its clipped bushes and geometrical layout is really just an extension of this further away from the buildings, and mostly formal gardens do look best when they are attached to a building, rather than sitting out among natural plantings. It is in the foundation areas that our urge to clip and trim can be given free rein. If you love globe forms, narrow columns, pyramids, cones and spirals, then this is the part of your garden to have them. They will look right at home – which is exactly where they are of course!

The Features of Foundation Plants

There are also practical considerations when choosing plants for around your home, some of which are obvious. Let’s look at some limitations and features these plants need, to work well around your house, and be suitable for the long-term.

Limited in size – the most common mistake seen in planting close to a house is planting trees that will grow too large. We have all seen the house with the enormous tree – perhaps a Blue Spruce, a Leyland Cypress or a Maple Tree – planted just a few feet from a home. It has now grown so large it branches obscure all the windows, block the doors, and it towers above the house, threatening to destroy it in a storm. When choosing these plants, look carefully at the potential size – that ‘cute’ little evergreen may be 50 feet tall and wide just 20 years from now.

Not block windows – this is another aspect of size, and important when placing plants in your foundation planting. It may seem obvious, but a walk down any street will show you how common it can be. Rather than have to constantly trim, choose plants that naturally won’t grow above the window sills, even if they take a couple more years to get there. Speaking of windows, you can also take security precautions by planting shrubs like Barberry beneath windows, whose thorns will keep out almost any potential intruder.

Have limited roots – most deciduous trees have large roots, and these can and do threaten the foundations of your home. They can grow against them and under them, causing lifting and developing cracks. You may be looking at expensive tree removal down the road if you make the wrong choices. Even a little further away, some trees – Willow for example – are well-known for invading drainage and sewer lines, causing blockages.

Be mostly evergreen – Since you want to hide ugly features like concrete foundations and air-con units, you want to do it all year round, not just in spring and summer. Most of the foundation plants you choose should be evergreen, particularly when you are screening something specific. Plants like Yew Trees are easily clipped and look great all through the quiet days of winter. In areas with lots of snow there may be issues with snow and ice falling from the roof and crushing plants, so careful placement becomes important. Smaller deciduous flowering shrubs are perfect planted at the edges of your foundation areas, where the lawn or paving begins, and they make a good transition into that more natural look of the rest of your garden. Hydrangeas are great for this, since their rounded or conical heads have a neat geometry.

Have good form and color – rather than have to clip everything into shape, begin with plants that have been selected or bred to be naturally round – Mr. Bowling Ball Arborvitae for example, or Skyrocket Juniper. The different forms and colors of Sawara or Hinoki Cypress are also great choices, and they have good soft mounded shapes that are not totally formal. While it looks best to have plenty of green, adding blues and golds can paint a beautiful picture around your home.

There is a wide and varied selection of plants on our website – begin under ‘Evergreens’ – to create the perfect foundation planting, and to make that essential transition from architecture to nature that will give you a great garden. Happy planting!

Comments 3 comments

  1. May 12, 2019 by Alison

    Thank you. I am a beginner to gardening. This article was very informative and easy to understand.

  2. May 21, 2020 by Roe wunderlich

    My neighbor bought from you a “variegated willow”. Looks like a tree. It is now 7 years old and
    beautiful.
    You are showing a tri color willow. Is this the same? Bush or tree? I would like a big one, please advise.

    1. May 21, 2020 by Dave G

      Yes, they are the same. The size and form depends on you and how you prune it, and it is very fast-growing, so ‘big’ happens pretty soon!