Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Put Some Color into Your Foundation Plantings

Foundation plantings, also known as a line of green shrubs across the front of your house, are usually so boring people don't even notice them as they dash by them on the way to the front door. Even the homeowner may not notice them until the shrubs grow tall enough to block the view outside. Then, in an annual ritual, the designated shrub-pruner in the family, precariously perching on an unstable ladder, chops them into submission.

In my family, I am the shrub-chopper. When we bought the house, it contained the requisite line of shrubs, all of which I removed except for the Japanese Holly, "Sky Pencil," an evergreen, columnar shrub that, at my house, grows about eight feet tall and two feet wide, between the windows.  The holly is a fine choice for the space, but it doesn't get quite enough sun to make the new growth rigid like it is supposed to, and so the new growth flops over until I give it a haircut and tie it to a stake.

Landscapers that work with home builders are notorious for putting in shrubs that grow quickly so a new house's landscape looks nice until after the buyer moves in.  The unwitting homeownerhas to chop shrubs several times a year, and soon grows to detest yard work. In my first home, the developer's landscaper put ligustrum, which quickly grows to 10 feet tall by eight feet wide, in a space about two feet wide between the garage doors.  My husband sheared it into a tiny rectangle several times a year so we could continue to get the cars into the garage.  Avoid overused and fast growing shrubs like ligustrum, pittosporum, Indian hawthorn, and junipers in your landscape; they are useful if you need to quickly screen an unattractive view.

There seems to be an unwritten rule that the front yard must be utilitarian like everyone else's on the street, with anything imaginative reserved for the backyard.  I wanted my front yard to be as much of a garden as my back yard, and so  I decided on a color scheme I have repeated in other places in my garden: chartreuse and magenta, mixed in with some solid green. My design contains plants that the deer are supposed to resist eating; sometimes they listen to that instruction and sometimes they don't.  I tried to buy plants that even at maturity will not cover my windows.  Sometimes it is hard to find shrubs that are the right size, color, and are deer-resistant, so I did buy some that, unpruned, would eventually grow too large.  However, they grow slowly; I prune them every couple of years and they behave.

View of front garden
 In the above photo, chartreuse "Golden Euonymus" glows beside burgundy loropetalum.  Behind the euonymus is a burgundy Japanese barberry that will grow to about 4 feet tall.  In the center of the photograph is a peony, with dark pink buds about to open.  After the peony's show of flowers, the green leaves provide a nice contrast with the bright foliage of the other plants during the rest of the summer.  By the house, the Japanese maple, 'Crimson Queen,' has a nice weeping form and lacy leaves.  It will remain small enough not to obstruct the view from the window.  To the left of the Japanese Maple is and Oakleaf Hydrangea; its leaves turn crimson in the fall.

Unfortunately, the loropetalums I purchased, from a reputable local nursery, were labeled as a shrub that was supposed to grow 3-4 feet tall and wide.  They cost at least double the price of the huge version of the shrub.  The labels were inaccurate, and the shrubs require hard pruning every year or so to make them behave.  I discarded the receipt and the labels: in the future I will save both until I am sure I got the plant I paid for.



View of perennials in front garden
 In this photo, I continue the chartreuse and burgundy color scheme with the ground cover golden "Creeping Jenny," and the taller Persicaria 'Red Dragon' in the foreground.  Penstemon 'Husker's Red,' is beginning to flower in the center of the photo, and at the base of the stairs the grass Carex 'Evergold' shines.  Included in the design, but not yet flowering in this April photograph, are Bergenia 'Winterglow,' Anemone 'Robutissima,' Lobelia 'Monet Moment,' Monarda 'Pink Supreme,' Astilbe 'Rheinland,' and Aster 'Alma Potschke."

In this area of my garden, the soil is always moist, even during a drought.  I think there is a spring under my house that no one noticed during its construction, but the spring does not cause the house problems. However, it does limit my choice of plants to those that tolerate consistently moist conditions.  If I had a well-drained site, I would plant some of the Euphorbias, like Euphorbia 'Chameleon,' Sedums, like Sedum 'Lynda Windsor' and 'Angelina,' and Heucheras, like Heuchera 'Lime Rickey,' 'Southern Comfort,' and 'Purple Petticoats.' In my garden, these plants keep leaves most of the year.

I order most of my perennials from Bluestone Perennials, http://www.bluestoneperennials.com/.   I like Bluestone because they have the widest variety of plants I have seen, their plants are healthy, and most plants they sell in groups of three for the price most nurseries charge for one.  Granted, the plants are smaller than you might get elsewhere, but they bloom the first year for me and quickly catch up to those I buy in larger containers. Their customer service is excellent, and the catalog provides detailed cultural information about the plants.

Tracy Disabato-Aust's book, "The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques" is a good reference.  It provides detailed cultural information about most plants and time-saving ways to take care of perennials, such as giving the entire plant a haircut with hedge trimmers or a weed-eater instead of laboriously clipping of each individual spent bloom.  It also gives garden design information.

"The Southern Living Garden Book" is a good reference for folks who live in the South, which includes Delaware and west to Oklahoma and part of Missouri.  The book includes cultural information, including size at maturity, of nearly any plant that grows in the South, and it includes lists of plants for different situations, such as lists of plants with colorful foliage, deer resistant plants, and plants with showy flowers.


If you need help with the design, most local garden center staff will help you choose appropriate plants; show them a photograph of the site, along with measurements and a description of soil and sun conditions.


This spring, discard your preconceived notions of the foundation planting. Pull out the shrubs that threaten to cover your windows every year, and plant some that will grow to maturity while remaining under your windows. Include perennials and grasses in the design, and turn your front yard into a garden, instead of just a path to the front door.

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