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New Foundation for Old School Landscapes

5 min read | Sep 14, 2016 | Plants 

I love Motown.  Aretha Franklin is one of my favorites, but my desire to hear soulful songs does not end there.


Diana Ross and The Supremes, Four Tops, the Temptations……they are all classics in my opinion.  My love of music from the 60’s and 70’s does not carry over to landscapes of the same era.  The popular look of boxed-off evergreen shrubs in straight lines died years ago, but we still see the same look in our neighborhoods today.  Perfectly sheared cubes and spheres have their place in the garden or in certain landscape situations, but in front of our homes they look “old school” and boring. It is past time to shake up our foundation plantings.  To accomplish this, we need to use different plants, shapes, colors, and more curves!


For years gardeners have used boxwood and Japanese hollies along the foundations of their homes.  These have been popular plants because they are evergreen, can mature to heights that remain under windows, and are fairly easily sheared into different shapes and sizes.  The problem is that they have become incredibly generic.  It seems like many foundation plantings look the same with a single row of sheared shrubs and nothing else.  One way to avoid this look is by using different plants.  The idea of using an evergreen shrub that matures to around four feet in height is fine, but there are plants other than boxwood and Japanese holly that can fit the bill.

There are many new plant introductions that can add excitement to boring foundation plants.  One such introduction that I selected for my yard is the Obsession Nandina (Nandina d. ‘Seika’).


This Nandina is an evergreen, dense shrub with brilliant red foliage on new growth and in the fall.  Obsession Nandina is beautiful planted in mass or as an accent and grows just 3-4 feet high and wide given full sun to part shade.  Nandina is a plant species that has many uses in the garden.  Their foliage color, texture, and the ability to produce flowers and berries can add a ton of interest to the garden. These low growing Nandinas will require very little pruning, but if they do need to be cut I will selectively hand prune them. Shearing these plants will result in the same old formal linear shapes that I want to avoid.  By hand pruning, the plants are allowed to grow their own way, and have more of an informal look.

Many people have started using another type of holly called ‘Carissa’ holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Carissa’).  ‘Carissa’ is a great little evergreen shrub that is different from Japanese hollies in texture and natural form.  The leaves of ‘Carissa’ are much larger than those of the Japanese hollies, providing a coarse texture to the garden.  The plant itself maintains a nice tight mound shape, rarely requiring pruning.


Given the correct lighting, plants such as Encore Azaleas and Gardenias can also be utilized as backdrop plants in foundation plantings.


Both Azaleas and Gardenias are quite variable in size depending on the specific cultivar used, ranging from a couple of feet in height, to over six feet.  Gardenias and azaleas would also add color to the landscape through their flowering ability.

gardenia crown jewel

Speaking of color, there is nothing wrong with using plants that have different or interesting foliage color as foundation plants.  Are you tired of green “bushes”?  Try using plants with variegated or colored foliage.  Sunshine Ligustrum is an interesting new plant introduction with evergreen, golden yellow leaves.


Sunshine adds a little tropical flare to the garden through its foliage, and can reach 3-5 feet in height and spread.

Using plants with different forms intermixed in a foundation planting will add interest, depth, and help accent nooks and corners of your home.  ‘Emerald’, ‘Degroot’s Spire’, and ‘Holmstrup’ are all cultivars of Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) with a columnar growth habit that can be utilized on corners of homes to help frame the house and landscape.

sunkist arborvitae close

These plants can mature anywhere between eight and fifteen feet in height, but will not grow much wider than three feet.  They fit nicely in tight spaces.  These plants are conifers (evergreens like pines or leyland cypress) and their textures combine well with those of broadleaf evergreen shrubs.  Curly leaf Ligustrum (Ligustrum j. ‘Coriaceum’) and sky pencil holly (Ilex c. ‘Sky Pencil’) are both broadleaf evergreen shrubs with columnar habits that can be used in the same manner as the arborvitaes.  Even some of our camellias have narrow, upright growth habits so that they can be intermixed in the landscape around our homes.

Bed shape can play a major role in the appearance of foundation beds as well.  In many older landscapes, beds are the length of the front of the house, and four or five feet deep.  This creates the formal, linear look that many try to avoid.  By making our beds deeper and adding curves to our planting areas, we can create space in front of foundation plants to add a more diverse selection of material.  This is where great landscapes set themselves apart from others.  Some gardeners feel reluctant to add deciduous plants (plants that loose their leaves in the winter) to their landscape because they feel that their garden will look barren in the colder months.


This can be avoided with a nice evergreen background using some of the plants that we have talked about.  Using a solid evergreen backdrop allows gardeners to plant Hydrangea, Spiraea, Rose of Sharon, Sweet Betsy, and many other deciduous plants that can add interest throughout the year.  It also creates spaces for perennials and annuals, which both have long blooming seasons.


Being brave and breaking the mold of past landscapes can provide you with an opportunity to have something different in front of your home.  The classic music of the 60’s and 70’s is still classic today, and for a good reason, but I feel like the landscapes of that era should have stayed in that time period.  Does your landscape need a face lift?

Happy Gardening!

Brad Rollins