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Planting Accent Trees and Shrubs

One common place to find shrubbery is around the foundation of a building. Foundation plants are an important element of the perfect front yard. When properly planned, installed and cared for, foundation plantings are a valuable asset.

Planting Accent Trees and Shrubs

Foundations Plant Origins and Purpose

Foundations Plant Origins and Purpose

The tradition of foundation planting evolved from a desire to ease the transition from house to landscape or to disguise masonry and basement windows. Shrubs were the perfect solution. Foundation plantings can present an occasional problem, usually in older homes. The main problems usually result from shrubs or trees that are too close to the house.

On the structural side, several things can occur:

  • Some plant roots are quite strong and persistent. Years of growth can cause damage to the house foundation, resulting in a leaky basement.
  • Roots absorb a lot of moisture and may result in overly dry soil at the foundation. The soil may pull away from the structure and allow water to seep in.
  • As plants mature, the increasing height and width boost the chance of mold or mildew on house siding, causing paint problems.
  • Taller plantings decrease the lifetime and effectiveness of gutters and roofing and can interfere with utility lines above and below ground.

Concerning the plants themselves:

  • When shrubs are planted too close to the house or each other, drastic pruning is often required to keep growth under control. The natural shape and form of the plant is altered or disfigured.
  • Planting too close to the house or other plants decreases air circulation. These plants are also more susceptible to pests and disease.
  • If one or more of the above situations exist, it's time to start thinking about replacing or renovating your foundation plantings.

Removing mature plants can be difficult. If you want to transplant a shrub to another spot, a lot of careful digging is required to excavate the root ball without causing damage to the plant or the house. The resulting mass will be extremely heavy, so be prepared with the proper equipment to relocate it. A backhoe or skid-steer is often the only recourse.

After removal, whether you transplant or if the shrub is simply not salvageable, you're faced with a large hole — right beside the house. When you dig out a shrub, have something ready to put in its place. If available, use subsoil (or fill dirt) to fill in the lower portion of deep holes. Fill dirt is less porous than topsoil. Fill to about 8-10-in from the top of the hole, tamp it down and finish filling with a more root-friendly topsoil. If you're installing another plant, make sure you locate it so that it will not be too close to the house or other plants. Do not repeat the same mistake you're trying to fix.

Observe and address drainage problems near the foundation at this time as well. Soil should slope away from the structure. Building codes vary by region, but a 6 inch slope in the first 10 linear feet measured out from the foundation is a relatively common standard.

New homes present an easier project, since installing landscape plants is one of the last steps when a new home is completed. New homeowners have the ability to start with a "blank slate."

Planning and Designing Your Foundation Garden

Planning and Designing Your Foundation Garden

To achieve maximum visual impact, it's important to know the basics of landscape design. Incorporating scale, balance and variety will visually integrate the house with the yard. Whether your home is formal or informal, your plant choices should match the house's design. The goal is to enhance its appearance, not hide it. Quite a few modern homes do not need a ring of shrubs around the front in order to be attractive. There are, however, some key areas of placement you may want to consider:

Entryways are focal points of the home's exterior, incorporating the areas that are in public view. Make your entrance interesting and attractive throughout the year. Here are some suggestions for additions or improvements:

  • A specimen tree with accent lighting.
  • Containers planted with annuals provide seasonal color and interest.
  • A lamp post, trellis or arbor.
  • A new walkway.

Corner plantings can extend the appearance of the house and help screen the side or back yard from view. If you would like your house to appear wider, place plants beyond the corners of the house. Taller plants look best with taller homes.

Borders and beds complement and incorporate the home with the lawn, driveway and walkways. During renovation, foundation planting beds can be expanded further into existing lawns. Beds that are gentle and sweeping work better than right angles. Excessive curves give a busy look and are difficult to mow around. Adding mulch and edging makes the area more attractive and reduces maintenance.

Good to Know

Areas of the country that are susceptible to wildfire should pay careful attention to firewise landscaping practices.

Plant Placement

Plant Placement

When planning where to install new plants, remember the problems discussed at the beginning of this article. The most important thing to remember when installing foundation plants is the spacing between the house and the plant.

Take the time to make sure you are placing plants where they will look and perform their best. Avoid planting directly under the eaves. That area sees reduced rainfall due to the overhang, reduced air circulation and reduced access to the home (for maintenance).

Also avoid planting too near downspouts.

When planning plant groups, planting in odd numbers of three or five is more visually appealing than even numbers. Plant them in triangular patterns rather than straight lines.

Good to Know

If you use wood mulch in your foundation beds and live in an area where termites are common: Maintain a barrier of 6-12 inches between the mulch bed and wooden portions of the house. The barrier can be exposed soil, shredded rubber mulch, crushed rock or marble chips.


Make sure plantings do not obstruct outdoor heating and air conditioning units. Planting too close interferes with air circulation and maintenance of the unit. If you have a pad-mounted electric transformer or other public utility structure on your property, check with the utility company before planting.

Choosing Plants

Choosing Plants

When it's time to go shopping, there are plenty of plant choices. Before you go to the garden center, make sure you know the space you have available and the amount of sunlight the planting area receives. As you browse, read the plant tags. Pay attention to the mature size (height and width) and the spacing recommendations. The plant tag also tells you the sunlight and water requirements.

It's easy to plant small containerized shrubs too close to the house. It's usually a better idea to plant larger shrubs in these areas. Remember that they will be a little more expensive and heavier, but you should need fewer.

Evergreens are an obvious choice since they retain their color and form all year. Evergreens include coniferous and broadleaf types.

Deciduous shrubs are also excellent choices. Accenting the area with deciduous plants can provide blooms, attractive bark or shape, fragrance or color contrast (especially in fall).

A specimen plant is chosen for one or more unique characteristics. It may be blooms, shape, fragrance or interesting bark. An ornamental tree such as dogwood, redbud, Japanese maple, crape myrtle, crabapple or one of many palms can be a quite dramatic addition. The effect can last day and night when the tree is accented with decorative lighting. Other options include topiary or fruit- or nut-bearing trees. Keep in mind that topiaries require regular pruning and fruit trees will drop ripened fruit.

Good to Know

Variables such as sunlight, water, feeding, soil pH and competition from other plants all affect growth rates. Especially consider water needs and availability when selecting plants.

Maintaining Your Foundation Plants

Maintaining Your Foundation Plants

When you have made your placement plan and plant choices, it's time to install them. Plant them properly. not too deep, not too close together and certainly not too close to the house.

Prune to maintain neatness and health. Pruning also increases visibility and security near doors and windows.  If you prefer low-maintenance, avoid shrubs that require regular pruning. If you choose shrubs that look best when left alone to spread naturally, make absolutely sure that they are planted where they have room to grow.

For even more color and variety, supplement the foundation beds with seasonal bulbs, ornamental grasses, trellised vines or annuals and perennials. Use containers to complement and add color.

Remember a few basics when deciding what to plant:

  • Evergreens retain their color and form all year and are excellent choices for foundation beds. The evergreen designation includes coniferous plants such as juniper and broadleaf plants like the boxwood.
  • Deciduous shrubs are excellent choices, even though they lose their leaves in the fall. Accenting a landscape with deciduous plants can provide blooms, attractive bark or form, fragrance and color (especially in fall).
  • For limited space, look for dwarf varieties. These varieties offer the perfect solution for many landscapes. They retain the desirable and recognizable traits of their larger cousins, but only need a fraction of the space.
Good to Know

Depending on your climate, some plants, such as dogwood and magnolia, are classified as shrubs but can actually reach small tree size.