Home & Garden

Update your foundation plantings

B A curving front walk and plants of various heights extend the front yard planting scheme to the edge of the property. It’s much more interesting than a line of shrubs in front of the house.
B A curving front walk and plants of various heights extend the front yard planting scheme to the edge of the property. It’s much more interesting than a line of shrubs in front of the house. MARTY ROSS

Tired formulas for foundation plantings only make a house look frumpy. Forget about pointy evergreens at the corners of the house and bun-shaped shrubs in the center under the windows, and give your front yard landscape an upgrade.

“I just like to get away from the ‘term foundation planting’ and make the entire front yard usable,” says Barbara Hilty, a landscape designer in Portland, Ore., who says old-fashioned plantings with evergreens across the front of the house and then lawn all the way to the curb don’t take full advantage of the possibilities. Instead, when you re-imagine the space and bring the design out into the garden, away from the facade, a house becomes a nicer place to come home to. Reducing the size of the lawn and adding variety to the plantings out front is also better for the environment.

Foundation plantings traditionally were designed to cover up the stone or brick around the base of a house. A very simple, old-fashioned planting might rely on just one species, such as yews or junipers, or perhaps azaleas, to help nestle a house into the landscape. Too often, these shrubs are planted too close to the house and then ignored until they become overgrown, obscuring the house and blocking views from inside.

Jane Cantin, a landscape architect in Norfolk, Va., sees overgrown foundation plantings all the time.

“It’s those cute little Alberta spruces,” she says. “They look like little baby Christmas trees. But after a few years they eat up the sidewalk. You can’t even get to the front door.” In frustration, homeowners try to prune them, but their efforts frequently backfire. “The shrubs get so whacked and wonky that they don’t come back, and you just have to take them out.”

Taking out inappropriate or overgrown plants can be liberating, designers say. It’s often a hard decision, but “a lot of times, just the act of pulling them out – homeowners suddenly love their house again,” says Carolyn Mullet, owner of Carex: Garden Design, in Takoma Park, Md. “It was dark and foreboding, and now it’s light and clean and they can see out of their house again.”

Good-looking foundation plantings should start at the street, and move back toward the home along an attractive front walk, with perhaps a small entrance court or patio with a bench at the front door. If the scale of the steps and stoop do not suit a house, or if they are in bad condition, “this may be the time to take out that old hardscape, put in things more gracious and safer, more fitting with the design of the house,” Mullet says. “It’s an important part of giving your house a facelift.”

Well-chosen plants are part of the overall design.

“I take the architecture and the setting and the region into consideration,” Cantin says, “and whether the home is contemporary or traditional.” Her designs favor plants that will look attractive through the seasons without pampering. Where appropriate, Cantin likes to suggest an informal, naturalistic style with native plants. In formal settings, she sticks to simple designs with just a few sculptural plants.

Ornamental grasses have earned a place out front, these designers say, especially in combination with evergreens and flowering perennials.

Mullet says she might combine an evergreen shrub with switchgrass (Panicum) or Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis), with low perennial flowers in front of them for seasonal color and contrasting textures. Hardy geraniums, coneflowers and hellebores are among her favorites. Mullet also likes to use native shrubs, including oakleaf hydrangea and Annabelle hydrangea (sometimes called smooth hydrangea), which hold their flowers for weeks, have an interesting structure through the winter and can be pruned easily.

Working with a designer is a good way to help you develop a vision for the front of your house and to avoid common mistakes. Designers have the advantage of years of experience, and they work closely with contractors who can build and repair fences, lay brick or stone walls and walkways, and install lighting to bring out the best in a design. Designers are good at combining plants and know which plants thrive in your local conditions.

“There’s no cookie-cutter solution; it always depends on the site,” Cantin says. Getting away from the predictable styles – and the usual tired plant combinations – will change the way you and your neighbors and guests see your home, she says.