On the way to and from work today I was confronted with a harsh reality. There is nothing quite like a warm, sunny, spring day to make the heart long for the garden. During the drive home a detour was in place and I got to drive through a neighborhood I'd not been through before. Surprisingly, there were many fairly new homes along this road and best of all they weren't supporting yet another crop of muffined yews or similar evergreens in the front yard. It appears that builders are ranging out into the world of deciduous shrubs and perennials.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the common plants in front of new homes consisted of yews, arborvitae, rhododendrons, azaleas, and maybe a holly or boxwood. At some point, spirea became a common addition as well and barberry was practically inevitable as far as deciduous shrubs went. Unfortunately, yews are tasty and the local deer population will nibble at them even if they're planted right under the dining room windows. Arborvitae are also quite tasty to deer and I've seen many lovely hedges almost completely bare to about the 4' mark. Azaleas, rhododendrons, holly and boxwood all have some fairly specific needs and southern exposure in poor soil aren't two of them. Azaleas are particularly tricky, yet builders loved them. While working in the industry I saw many Delaware Valley White azaleas return quite dead due to exposure, over watering, or death by dryness.
So what did I see today that was different? Well, there were still some azaleas and rhododendrons kicking around, but there were many perennials mixed in. Siberian iris and daylilies were most common and some ornamental grasses were showing signs of life as well. A few Japanese maples were mixed into the foundation plantings and a dwarf weeping cherry of some sort was also seen (at least I hope it's a dwarf weeping cherry--far too many people buy standard weeping cherries when they're young, not realizing they'll get to 30' high and 30'wide). Now, one could argue that Japanese maples are a bit over planted these days, but it is nice to see them in place of the red barberries.
So, how can you make a foundation planting better and/or what should you do if faced with something new? Here's a list of 10 things to consider in no particular order (except for #1, it is most important).
1. Know your site. What exposure does it have? East? North? What is the soil like? Is it dry? Wet? Sandy? Rich? What plants are there currently and what seems to do well? Can you plant far enough out beyond the roof line so that plants won't be damaged by falling snow/ice? Can you give your plants enough distance from the house so that you can maneuver behind them? Knowing your site well might mean watching the area for a year and jotting down notes. Although it gets full sun in early April, can the same be said in May once leaves are fully out? Are winter winds particularly bad? Are there critters in the neighborhood who will eat everything you plant? Keep an eye out and learn as much as you can about the planting site before you start planting. I have much experience in the "wrong plant, wrong place" school of horticulture. Taking time is difficult, but worth it in the long run.
2. Symmetry is overrated. You do not need a columnar plant on each side of your doorway or at the front corners of the house, nor do you need an even number of plants. Aim for groupings instead of straight lines. Plant in odd numbers. This will lend a more natural look to the plantings, which can still end up being quite formal in tone.
3. Go for complimentary colors. Remember back when you were in school and your art teacher talked about the color wheel? No? Well, look it up online. It's fairly easy to match up colors if you stick with colors close to one another on the wheel. At the same time, some opposing colors look amazing together--just be careful. Looking for a white garden? Add some pale blue and grey colors, or maybe light pink in with white flowering plants for a more interesting collection.
4. Timing is everything. Avoid buying plants when you see them flowering just because they are flowering when you see them. Why? In some cases plants are brought to nurseries from other locations and they may be weeks ahead of their normal bloom time in your climate. Study your plants in advance and try to add a mix to the garden that will provide bloom time throughout the year. Those foundation plantings of azaleas and rhododendrons look great in the spring, but once June rolls around they get pretty boring.
5. Texture. Plants aren't just greenery and flowers, they are texture as well. Some plants have interesting winter bark or stem colors (like Acer griseum--the paperbark maple). Perennials are excellent sources of different textures as well, such as hostas which can have crinkly, or wavy leaves. Some plants have a soft profile, while others look strong. Some plants, like the Harry Lauder's Walking Stick (Corylus avellana 'Contorta'), are both; being a different looking plant between winter and summer.
6. Sometimes it just doesn't work out. It's not you, it's the damp. No, no, really, it isn't you, voles have come between us. In the garden, nothing is guaranteed 100% and even with your best efforts sometimes plants just don't work. They die mysteriously, become dinner for an animal, or shack up with the neighbor's hydrangeas. Move on, let it go, it wasn't meant to be, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and so forth.
7. Plants can be a lot of work. Some plants are fussy and enjoy as much attention as you can give them. They are divas of the yard and let you know if you've somehow disappointed them. Certain hydrangeas, clematis, azaleas, delphiniums, birch trees, and a host of other plants are picky, need your focus, and cannot go without more than the usual support in the yard. Granted, there are exceptions, but be prepared for the divas and avoid them. Even one of my favorite perennials, daylilies, offer up the finicky variety every now and again--I'm looking at you Strawberry Candy with your flowers that turn into gross, slimy, masses of evil if they get wet. And don't even get me started on the topiary...yes they have them at Home Depot, no it doesn't mean you should try one unless you are willing to take the time to take care of it properly. Just ask the horse topiary down the street from me that lost its back end to die back and turned into 1/2 a horse with a gigantic neck.
8. Avoid fad plants. For a while now the Tri-Color Willow (Salix integra 'Hakura Nishiki') has been popular with gardeners. Unfortunately, in order to get the interesting leaves, you need to prune the plant back in the spring (or more often). I've encountered gigantic, horrible versions of this plant and the pretty leaves are lost because the plant was attempting to eat the fence it was planted next to. Other plants look fantastic at first sight, but aren't reliably hardy, have insect/disease problems, or just don't thrive (like the Great Expectations hosta I once had). If something new appears at the garden center watch how it does in someone else's yard. Let them make the first mistake.
9. Mix in bulbs. A foundation planting needs a boost of early color and there are all kinds of bulbs that fit the bill. Snowdrops are especially early and spread well. Daffodils and Tulips are especially well known and some varieties are fantastic.
10. Take risks. Please, for plant lovers everywhere, take a risk and mix up the plants in front of your house. Oh, and don't prune your yews into neat little muffin shapes...they don't like that, although will tolerate it. Yews put out new growth on the tips of branches and if this is cut off every year it's possible to end up with a yew that has a thin shell of needles on the outside and nothing on the inside. Do you like blue hydrangeas? Put them near your front door. Like boxwood but don't want the plant to get large? Seek out one of the low growing types like Buxus sempervirens 'Vardar Valley' or the dwarf boxwood (Buxus sempervirens Suffruticosa). They may grow slowly, but they'll be far happier near your house. Try a weeping redbud (Cercis canadensis 'Covey') in place of a cherry, or maybe the lovely native fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus).
Since I mentioned it above, I figured I'd provide this as my recommended plant. I have a soft spot for the Redbud (Cercis canadensis). This great small tree is excellent as a foundation planting (give it some room--at least 10' away from the house) and enjoy the early flowers and large heart shaped leaves. There are pink and white flowering types and another with reddish leaves (Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'). There's even one with variegated leaves called 'Silver Cloud.' The weeping variety, 'Covey', is particularly nice and would make an interesting addition to any foundation planting. You may find 'Covey' listed as 'Lavender Twist.'