Attractive alternatives abound to replace home foundation plantings

Plants in front of Maria Hasenecz's house extend to the street to create a more engaging look. "You want to make it more of a journey as people approach the house," she says.
Plants in front of Maria Hasenecz's house extend to the street to create a more engaging look. "You want to make it more of a journey as people approach the house," she says.
Posted: January 21, 2011

Rhododendron, azalea, holly, yew, euonymus, juniper: For the last century or so, these plants have occupied the narrow flower beds up against the bases of American houses. They're called foundation plantings, a landscape concept that was originally intended to hide the high, sometimes unattractive, lower extremities of Victorian homes.

But architecture and lifestyles have changed, and jamming the same old retreads up against the house no longer serves a practical purpose. And such a limited - and limiting - design certainly doesn't add to the aesthetic.

"Foundation planting has become a safe cliche. It's time to move on," says garden designer Gordon Hayward of Putney, Vt., author of 10 gardening books and contributing editor at Fine Gardening magazine.

Renee Kemmerer, horticulturist at the Mount Cuba Center in Hockessin, Del., which studies the region's native flora, has a better idea.

Instead of robotically going the foundation route, Kemmerer says, ask yourself this question:

What was your favorite place when you were a child?

Was it the meadow behind your house? The large oak tree that you used to climb and play around? Your grandmother's backyard, perhaps?

If it was the meadow, Kemmerer says, think about pulling out those narrow foundation beds and making a wider, curvy design. Add some native plants - maybe false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), a profuse bloomer from midsummer to fall; statuesque Joe Pye weed or little bluestem; and tall tickseed (Coreopsis tripteris), an elegant butterfly magnet from the prairie.

This is the roster Kemmerer assembled at her 1951 rancher on 3/4-acre in Cochranville, Chester County. She essentially extended the foundation plantings from the house to the street or property line, creating a total "front garden."

If you like the "old oak tree" concept, Kemmerer says, start by planting one native tree - flowering dogwood is good - and build around that, adding benches, rocks, and other big, space-defining features before everything else.

And what does "Nana's backyard" bring to mind? Hydrangeas, always. And yes, there are native alternatives to the popular mophead, among them the exquisite oakleaf and silverleaf varieties.

In addition to vegetables, our grandparents grew a lot of fruit trees. Kemmerer and her husband, Karl, are surely channeling ancestors; their diet is rich in homegrown native serviceberries, thornless blackberries, persimmons, and plums.

"I try to convey to people that you have to love your landscape and your design," Kemmerer says. Sometimes that means eating it.

If you must keep your foundation yews and junipers, she adds, move them away from the house and design from there. Everything needs room to breathe.

Landscape designer Marie Hasenecz, founder and current board member of the local chapter of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, has a front garden in Wyndmoor that will take a gardener's breath away.

She's upended the idea of foundation planting by creating not just curb appeal, which continues to be an argument for keeping that tradition, but "a real garden experience for homeowners and visitors, as they come up to the front door or look out from inside.

"You want to make it more of a journey as people approach the house," Hasenecz says, "like you'll walk underneath a tree, through an area with interesting perennials and grasses. Then you might see in the distance a bench that's welcoming, and when you arrive at the door, maybe it's flanked with other interesting specimens, then planters on either side of the door."

Hasenecz's front-yard travelogue expresses almost verbatim the concept Hayward espouses in his books and lectures, namely that "all good entrance gardens have lots of prepositions."

Here's how he puts it:

"You step off the sidewalk, onto a stone path that leads between two trees and under their branches, as you walk between two gardens on either side of the path, up a set of steps, through a gate, into another garden, up the steps, under the portico and in the front door.

"Every one of those prepositions is an experience that increases the intimacy quotient of the garden," Hayward says.

That's exactly what Pete Shannon is looking for.

Eleven years ago, the retired investment adviser and his wife, Carroll, a retired school administrator, moved to a 40-year-old house on three acres less than three miles from Mount Cuba. It had the usual "green collar" around the base of the house, on all four sides, including rhodies, azaleas, and barberries, which Carroll loves, even though they produce a boatload of seeds easily spread by birds and other animals.

Many of the older plants are nearing the end. "Why put the same stuff back?" Shannon asks.

So he and his wife added beds in a variety of shapes and sizes around the house, but not up against it. In them they've planted a variegated liriope as ground cover and natives such as sweetspire, American holly, hemlock and flowering dogwood, red twig dogwood, and ferns.

"We've had some fun with it," Shannon says.

Through visits and volunteer work at Mount Cuba, whose 650 acres include 20 miles of hiking trails, Shannon says he has come to realize that "most people take shrubs and smack 'em up against the house and cut 'em with these weed whackers from Sears, and, you know, you might as well put green paint on your red brick and call it done."

The alternative - designing an entry garden up by the door or a front garden involving the entire yard - is far more welcoming. And it can be done in stages, to avoid spending $50,000 and hiring a full-time gardener right off the bat.

Ironically, we may find foundation plantings unwelcoming, but they came to be, in part, because of a desire to make the American front yard more hospitable. In the late 1800s, the famous Olmsted Brothers landscape design firm was working in a suburb of Chicago and espousing the idea of a "democratic lawn."

That was no political reference. Rather, it was the belief that the front yards of the tall Victorian homes should be inviting, with attractive lawns and no high hedges to block the view.

Frank Waugh took up the charge in 1927 with his classic tome Foundation Planting, and ever since, Americans have bought into the idea that, as Hayward says, "There would be no uppity French or English tone to our entry gardens, that they would all be open to view by passersby."

Because Victorian houses had porches, he continues, "This meant that as you're walking by, you would look up the lawn to the foundation planting and then to folks on the rocking chairs or benches on the porch, say hello, and maybe get invited up for a glass of lemonade.

"It was open, it was democratic - their term - and it was neighbors sharing neighbors' lives," Hayward says.

Compare that to today, when most people park the car in the driveway or garage, walk to the front door like a dazed zombie, and once inside, head out back to socialize on the patio in as private a setting as they can make.

Talk of remaking the front yard began among serious gardeners 10 or 15 years ago, according to Hayward, and is now filtering down to a broader population of folks who are being buffeted by companion trends, too.

One is to cut down on the size and nature of our lawns, changing over from synthetically fertilized to wildlife-friendly. Another is to swap lower-maintenance native plants, which are indigenous to a region, for the more demanding "exotics."

Still another trend working against those traditional house-hugging plants is the fact that consumers nowadays have many plant varieties and garden-design styles to choose from. There is no one way to do anything anymore.

Which leads to this advice, from Kemmerer: "Feel free to put yourself in the front yard."

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