My first house was a 1920’s colonial with a tiny lot with the worst set of foundation plantings I’ve ever seen on a house. In addition to planting inappropriate species, they were planted too close to each other and the house and were allowed to overgrow about twenty years too long. Especially troublesome were a couple of evergreen yews that were covering the windows and trimmed to an ugly shape that was not flattering to the cute house. They also severely restricted access to the front door. So what’s a new homeowner to do?
You guessed it, you get a couple of friends together on the hottest weekend of the year and decide to rip the suckers out. We started with what seemed like the least amount of work, putting a chain around the base of the plant and hooking it to my 1974 Volkswagen beetle. Then I got a running start and when the chain tightened the car leaped off the ground about 6 feet and stalled. Once my heartbeat slowed down below stroke speed, I checked the car to see that the rear end hadn’t been ripped out, unhooked the chain, put the car away and went to see how the yew was pulled out of the ground. Now you would think that having had a crushing 1500 lb. car with a whopping 65 horsepower going 20 mph play tug of war with it would have the yew looking pretty sad. As you can probably guess the plant hadn’t budged and in fact there wasn’t even any damage.
So next we took a handsaw, a particularly rusty and dull handsaw, and started cutting the trunks of the bush off about a foot from the ground. Once the entire bush was cut we discovered that first, the painters hadn’t painted behind the bush for about thirty years and in fact our gray house had once been a lovely mustard yellow, and second, the cutting of the upper part of the bush is the easy part – you’ve still got to get the roots out. Proceeding along we dug around the roots and with a combination of chopping with an axe and digging with a shovel finally got a 10’ diameter crater with the ugliest 300 lb chunk of gnarly yew roots anchored firmly in the center. By now it was getting dark, so we called it quits and started back on the project about three weeks later with sharp tools and an upcoming housewarming party deadline looming. The yew finally yielded to steel and muscle that day, but not before teaching us a very good lesson – choose the right foundation plant and take great pains to trim it and keep it looking right.
Foundation plants came about out of necessity. A pretty home would be built on a stone and mortar foundation and something was needed to hide it. In colonial times the foundation plants were a combination of things you could eat and things you could make stuff out of – such as herbs, vegetables, lilacs and if you could get seeds some strawflowers or sunflowers. Wild junipers and bayberries were also dug up and planted near the foundation for candle making. Current thinking on foundation plantings has evolved from this completely practical beginning. Today’s plantings are used as a design element to transition the eye from the low, soft, fine horizontal texture of the lawn to the hard, vertical form and scale of the home. They also can introduce seasonal colors and flowers and varying shades of green to bring the beauty of the outdoors right up to and sometimes into the home space.
If you’re a beginner gardener and putting in some foundation plants this fall do yourself a favor and remember two things: first, space the plants for their mature form and size, not their cute little form in the container at 1 year old; and second, this is New England and it snows here. Also good to remember is that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and that full sun exposure is south.
In the years when my first home was built, very formal, symmetrical, high-maintenance foundation plantings were de rigueur. In those days if you planted something on one side of the door you planted another one on the other side of the door and it had better have a conical shape and be an evergreen. Nowadays with many homes having multiple rooflines and irregular foundation shapes I like to combine a variety of shapes, sizes and textures not only to hide the foundation but also to tempt the senses. And even though I make fun of yews, I like to have a ratio of 1 evergreen to 3 deciduous plants, and yews do provide a consistent green color. However, please don’t trim them to unnatural shapes, select one with the right natural shape and give it a tuck and a trim once a year but for the most part let it be.
My all-time favorite foundation plant is andromeda. It is an evergreen shrub, grows to be about 4’ tall and 4’ around and has light green waxy foliage. It is one of the early blooming shrubs that lets you know that winter is over, and it has showy chains of white to golden flowers that cover the entire bush. Andromeda does not do well in shady locations and prefers very acidic soil, lots of peat moss (it’s native location is in the peat bogs of Europe) and lots of mulch. Never use any lime on it.
Another good plant is the dwarf rhododendron. They’re in the same family as azaleas (which are also good foundation plants) and have slightly larger evergreen leaves, will grow only about 3’ high and don’t require trimming until they’re about 50 years old. Their flower colors run the gamut from white to purple, and they also love acid soil. When planting them, place them in the hole about 2” higher than they were at the nursery, they tend to be planted too low. Also mulch heavily in the fall and it doesn’t hurt to spray on some anti-desiccant spray to keep the leaves from drying out in the winter winds.
Somewhere I heard that a home without foundation plants looks like a “doll house plunked down in the middle of a pool table” and I tend to agree. If you’re new to gardening planting some of these around your home can be one of the easiest most rewarding projects for your new home.