foundation plantings

saypoint(6b CT)January 19, 2004

I'm aware that the practice of using foundation plantings is a fairly recent invention. Aside from issues of historical accuracy, I've detected a certain disdain among design professionals lately when the subject comes up in discussion.

Is this because of the all-too-typical row-of-meatballs in suburban landscaping, or is there something else about foundation plantings that rubs folks the wrong way?

Almost every design book and article I've come across recommends planting SOMETHING near a structure to transition it ito the landscape.


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mjsee(Zone 7b, NC)

Part of the problem is the meatball plants--part of it is (I think) that having stuff RIGHT next to the foundation is bad forthe house. Moisture, drainage-lack of airflow..not real great.

At my last residence I inherited some lovely azaelas that were about 2 feet in front of the foundation...and an ENTIRE BED of Lilly of the Valley. OY do I miss that! I put in a Mock Orange on one corner, and a fern bed on the other... looked nice--but I had a modest little cottagey house. If I'd had something more formal I woud have been tempted to do topiaries in urns, I think...


    Bookmark   January 19, 2004 at 1:24PM
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Foundation planting is a cliché which, like all cliché's has limited usefulness.
I can understand someone wanting to disguise the four foot concrete apron their house rests on but foundation planting is not the only way to do it. This cliché becomes even more ridiculous when you have the foundation planting but don't have the four foot concrete apron.
Ask yourself why you want to "soften the corners" which seems to be another reason for planting against the house. With your house, ask yourself what effect the cedars between the windows have on the form (shape) of the house and what demands design this makes on the garden. Then ask yourself if they are there just because fashion demanded that a bare wall be covered. In my opinion (be it ever so 'umble) the foundation planting around your house is what is making it difficult for you to imagine garden rooms.
So what I am saying is that if you live in an ugly house you can attempt to disguise it with vines or whatever and if you live in a square house but would like to create an illusion of roundness then round of the corners with plants. If, conversely you live in a nice Georgian brick house use the garden to accentuate rather than to hide it.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2004 at 3:38PM
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saypoint(6b CT)

Well, my question was posed in a more general sense, but if you want to use my place as an example, what effect do YOU think the cedars between the windows have on the form of the house?
I don't know why the previous owners planted them, but if you have any specific ideas on what I can do to improve it, I'd love the see them. I've asked for input several times because I think two (or more) heads are always better than one, and I'm pretty much on my own here.
My problem is that there are just so many possible ways to do it that my feeble mind just boggles. Kind of like picking out wallpaper.


    Bookmark   January 19, 2004 at 4:29PM
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Cady(6b/Sunset34 MA)

Some people use foundation plantings to correct bad architecture. For example, you might plant a vertical shrub or tree, such as "Skypencil" or "Skyrocket" junipers, at a corner of the house to break up a strong horizontal flow in the architecture.

Also, dense foundation plantings can provide some pragmatic function. Where I live, there are strong winds. The previous owners of my house put in yew, azalea, pieris and euonymus "Burning Bush" as foundation plantings, and let them grow to full size, leaving adequate space between them and the foundation. The shrubs work as a windbreak.

Last year, I pruned the shrubs heavily on one side, mostly to remove crossing branches and deadwood. The amount of "heating units" my house used that winter soared on days when it was windy. That's only an anecdotal reckoning, but I believe it has a kernel of merit. :)

Also, foundation plantings can provide screening and privacy from street view. In some cultures (Japan, for example), houses were traditionally hidden behind a wall of greenery, creating a private space between the house and the view from the street. The custom of keeping shrubs away from the foundation, and showing off the house as a centerpiece, is a hallmark of Western design.

I don't provide the above points as an argument in support of foundation plantings. They're just an observation. I happen to like foundation plantings for several reasons, one of which is the extra opportunity to create additional garden space and to experiment with shrubs, small trees and herbaceous perennials that you might not have space elsewhere to work with.

As an example, last summer I planted a number of species of bamboo as foundation plantings. The only part of the yard that has enough sun for the particular species I chose, happened to be along one side of the foundation. So, I designed a planting area that would allow me to display the bamboos while giving them the environment they need.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2004 at 12:53PM
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Cornus(z5-6 OH)

Watch out for those underground utility lines!
I put a stone sculpture where mine is in the center garden,
Perenials in the far garden and near the foundation is open in that spot. Think I'll be doing an annual vine in that spot. Nothing I'm using for 'bones'.
Also be aware of snow sliding off the roof and crushing shrubs.
It seems to me to be an area with alot of maintainance near it with painting, roof work, gutters, window maintainance, waterproofing, ect.
If I could redo mine I'd have a three foot wide gravel path with plantings of vines, bulbs and creeping tyme and my foundation shrubs on the other side opening here and there to my outdoor rooms.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2004 at 3:08PM
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saypoint(6b CT)

The plantings I have out front right now consist of the aforementioned cedars between the windows, clipped yews under the windows, with azalea, cotoneaster, variegated euonymus and juniper in front. The cedars don't serve any real purpose, tend to lean away from the building, and keep the area more damp than is good for the masonry, not to mention the maintenance issue.

If I thought I could move them, they'd make a good screen on the other side where the neighbor's right of way runs by to access a rear lot.

If I were replanting this area from scratch, I would use appropriately sized plants in a group, a mix of deciduous and evergreen shrubs, but spaced far enough away from the house to allow easy access for maintenance, as Cornus mentioned, but also to create a 'view' from inside the house of the planting. In other words, not meant to be seen just from streetside. This also makes a nice spot for a bird feeder or small ornament where it's easy to observe from the windows.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2004 at 4:36PM
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Interestingly at least one well known tree expert ( Doctor Shigo ) suggest that many foundation problems related to moisture and soil shrinkage occurr after foundation plantings and nearby trees are romoved from the foundations of buildings ... since these plants play a vital role in maintaining soil moisture levels in the ground .....

The concrete floor in my house all of eight years old showed no water wear at all despite a hedge planted along the back of the house just a few feet from the foundation !!

I think builders are more apt to jump at an excuse for their faulty workmanship in some cases by blaming plantings when their foundations fail to perform.

I don't see foundation plantings as new ???

Good Day ....

    Bookmark   January 21, 2004 at 12:23AM
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mjsee(Zone 7b, NC)

hmmm. Mohave--you make an excellent point. This house HAS no "foundation plantings"...and it shifts a fair amount Winter to Summer...I wonder if it would shift LESS if we planted stuff? Or if we didn'thave clay soil...or thouse wasn't on a fairly steep slope...

points to ponder.


    Bookmark   January 21, 2004 at 10:08AM
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saypoint(6b CT)

I have also read articles on this topic that agree with the usefulness of foundation plantings in reducing the effects of wind and soil moisture. In my case, the house itself is brick, and some of the plants are a bit too close to it to allow for good air circulation.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2004 at 10:34AM
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If I can't work in between a house and foundation planting they are too close... one needs room to prune ect.. behind a hedge and then there is the bloody painter to contend with ....

Good Day .....

    Bookmark   January 21, 2004 at 7:45PM
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PucPuggyII(z8 VA)

Historically, there were lots of reasons against foundation plantings - to show off the quality of the architecture, to allow for good air circulation (critical in the humid southeast before air conditioning), and very importantly to keep out critters! Plantings up against the house give cover for vermin, snakes and other pests that can invade a house. Orkin wasn't around to come and provide pest control.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2004 at 8:30PM
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Cady's experience with wind break is certaiinly intersting. I'd never heard that before.
Tony's point is well stated...i would only wish to emphasize that one should look at the whole space and to do that in a more than two dimensiional manner (trying to keep from making a house look like a postcard from Kincade".
Also,the interchage between the house and the land is sometimes very dynamic. There is the sense of energy that a house and peice of land have together that is more important than rules like putting borders around everything.
A house may be emercgin f rom the forest, or erupting from beneath the soil, or might seem to have been deposited like an ancient rock reflecting the movement in the land, or there is a sense in which the house nestles into the landscape and shrubs&trees near the building may help create this scene, not as a foudation planting but as a part of the whole environment into which the house settles.

If you detect a disdain for "foundation plantings" amoung designers it may be that this cliche (putting a border around everything, or softening the corners) is just that: disdain for a two dimensional cliche that often stands in the way of creating a dynamiic and living space. And then thre are those times when a foundation planting works as an architectural feature.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2004 at 12:30AM
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When I moved over "the pond" I was struck by a basic difference between the appearance of gardens on this side compared to England, it took me a while to put my finger on exactly what it was.
I watched a programme about 1950's bungalows on the box last night and there it was staring me in the face; foundation planting. Every single bungalow shown had foundation plantings. Whereas in England the garden starts at the edge of the property and includes the house within the enclosed space, foundation planting sacrifices of the rest of the garden to 'landscaping'. This is a big difference because it represents two distinct notions of normal. People generally speaking want to be normal, or are normal without ever considering the options, so on one side of the pond to talk about a garden design that does not begin with a noose of evergreens around the house is tantamount to blasphemy it seems. On the other side normal is something else. My point is that, although foundation planting has its place, as Asha says above, if this is the only thing that comes to mind when making a garden perhaps we should try to think outside the box.
In the specific example of Jo's garden you can see from the photos how the cedars help to seperate the house from the rest of the garden with its ubiquitous lawn to the street. Nothing wrong with that, you say, but on another post jo was asking about outdoor rooms (another concept in danger of being a cliché) and in this case I think the two clash and without the evergreen noose it would be easier to visualise rooms.
To be slightly more blunt than Asha; foundation planting is not design.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2004 at 11:55AM
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Cady(6b/Sunset34 MA)

I don't believe anyone said that foundation planting is design in and of itself. However, foundation planting can surely be part of a comprehensive landscape design.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2004 at 12:02PM
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saypoint(6b CT)

Actually, the area out front of my house has only a smallish swath of lawn between the grouping of shrubs near the house and a wood-chip mulched area under large maples. Within and around the mulched area, there are several rhododendrons, a few azaleas, a large weigela at the edge of the shaded part, and a small volunteer dogwood. On one side an umbrella pine and cedar, and on the other a shade border with dogwoods, clethra, pieris, and numerous shade perennials, followed by a 'wood' of yews, cedars, the odd dogwood, ending at the corner. I don't have a good photo of this area.
I did some tinkering with the foundation plantings the other didn't look bad with the cedars removed, but when I took out the shutters as well, it looked pretty dismal. The dense shade and competition from the maples will be a problem out there.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2004 at 2:33PM
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saypoint(6b CT)

Actually, I lie. Look at my web page. There is a photo of the front from another angle, looking from the side yard thru part of the shade border (taken a while back, there are many more things planted around there now) looking toward the street.
There is also a plan of the entire yard there, tho not complete it gives a fair approximation of the locations and layout of things.

Here is a link that might be useful: Jo's Page

    Bookmark   January 23, 2004 at 2:38PM
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I have an interest in the history of foundation planting. I have researched the Victorian view of foundation planting as a result of trying to create a plan for the Farm Museum, an 1880's Midwest, rural farmstead. From what I have found the Victorians considered foundation planting as unsanitary. The moisture was considered bad for the house and could harbor "germs". This was, obviously, before the discovery of modern medicine and even before people believed in taking showers for other than medicinal purposes.

I happen to like having a foundation planting of herbatious perennials in front of my house, also an 1880 farmhouse, purely for aesthetic purposes. They die down in winter and the stone work of the foundation is visible, but they do provide a softness and a point of interest in summer. Additonally 2 large maples provide summer shade on the SW side and a line of mature conifers provide a winter wind break. It seems here there is no wind in summer but plenty in winter. Additionally the house sits on a hill. People used to "design" things much more practically than they do today.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2004 at 4:27PM
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Interesting about the Farm Museum. In older times you do not often find plants right next to the foundation of a building. Actually what I think of as a foundation planting seems to come from the time when little neat trim lawns came into being, along with the housing tracts and the suburbs. For an interesting read there is JB Jackson on the landscape vernacular of the U.S. and he outlines the history of the lawn.
Of course, not all plantings near the base of a house are necessarily what I think of as "foundation plantings", that is a neat little border around the house between the house and the front lawn (often houses do not have foundation plantings in the back ) ... what it is doing there I have no idea .
I've never seen plantings near the base of an old farm house. Remember they didn't have to go far to see nature ... and when "foundation planting" entered the lingo ( I think) it entered as some sort of remnant of some lingering memory, or it entered as a design element to frame the house, or to relieve the stress and naked feeling of row after row of little lawns without trees or shrubs (oh the stress of being naked in suburbia!), or for some other reason.
Tony, it is interesting to hear your perspective as an actual emigrant who already had a sense of landscape and then to find this rather ubiquitous piece of vernacular hanging about for no apparent reason. We juist assume we need it.
Now Jo's observation "Almost every design book and article I've come across recommends planting SOMETHING near a structure to transition it into the landscape."
Well, little rules of design is perhaps the origin of the dubious or perhaps the result.
Often in the times past people didn't have to think about a transition into the landscape, things already were in the landscape ... people, if they had gardens, had them for other reasons, and as for landscapes, well I wonder if people had landscapes except for the great breakthroughs of perspective for the huge houses in England by Brown et al.
In older times (pre 1930) houses of elegance in the countryside, as far as i can tell, may have had plants or trees that they really liked, or a garden of sorts that was somewhere in-between a practicality and something to give pleasure. Since the thirties, and the advent of the suburb, we have needs that are psychic practicalities... i suspect that "transition to the landscape" came in partly out of a need of the psyche to resotore an ordered nature (well i guess this is also a disease of the psyche:-) as a well ordered nature was never there before )

    Bookmark   January 23, 2004 at 11:59PM
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nicoviolet(omaha ne)

just my two cents...the problem is too many people, sometimes pretentious or trendy, making artistic decisions for non-artistic people. people should spend more time paying attention to their own taste, and trusting their own abilities. guidelines should be used as such, but i'll be dammed if i care what some dude in some tower says about anything. i admit i'm tired of the stupid evergreen shrub in front of the ranch style house, the vast display of obsessively manicured chemical lawn(yawn) and those damn impatiens and freakin petunias, but alas, some people also really like those things. some people are also really boring, and they have a right to their boredom. after saying all that, i live in one of those houses, and there's no excuse for me to not do something interesting to it myself, unless i really like to snooze standing up. i believe in being the eyesore on the block, screw anyone else's need to be trendy or conventional. balance is the only rule i follow, and as i see fit.:)

    Bookmark   November 22, 2004 at 8:44PM
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Funny, I thought foundation plantings were an old thing that was going away. I guess it depends how old is old to you.

To me the big advantage of foundation plantings is they represent another place to put trees and flowering shrubs. Lots of people don't want to put them in the middle of the yard because then you have to mow around them...well, you are going to have to mow around the house anyway. Also, if you pick something with flowers hummingbirds like you get to see hummingbirds and flowers from your window.

The reason people are turning against them is this (to me overblown) fear of the roots of trees planted to close and fear they will provide a place for burglars to hide.

I like foundation long as they aren't arborvitae. I think holly and rhododendron make great foundation plantings.

If there is an advantage to them in terms of drainage, it could just be they dissuade people from paving. I've encountered some old buildings that had basement flooding problems after they paved a driveway or expanded a parking lot. Old buildings may have french drains or other drainage systems who's location no one remembers.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 9:28PM
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