House with foundation planting of shrubs

Foundation Plantings: Big Mistake?

Foundation plantings are groups of shrubs, small trees, and herbaceous plants intended to hide a house’s concrete foundation, which is thought to be an eyesore, or somehow indecent, like a foundation garment. I remember reading instructions for these plantings in “how to garden” books from the 1950s and ’60s. Somehow, I thought both foundation plantings and foundation garments* had become passรฉ, but no. The internet is full of advice on design and plant selection for foundation plantings.

My advice? Don’t do it. You know why? Because those shrubs and perennials will be forever in the way of anyone doing any kind of maintenance to the house. Moreover, they will likely sustain damage in the process. One article I read actually recommended a variety of holly for a foundation planting. Can you imagine squeezing between house and holly bush with paintbrush in hand?

On three sides of our house (whose foundation isn’t visible because the stucco ends a couple of inches above ground level), there’s pavement close to the walls, except for 18 inch wide beds between the concrete walks at the back and one side. There are a few plants in those narrow spaces, but they’re short and manageable. These areas present few access problems.

Not so at the front. Soon after we moved in, I planted an artistically curved mixed bed there, 8 feet wide at each end and 4 feet in the middle. It’s occupied at one end by a couple of shrub roses and a large cotoneaster with a clematis growing through it. At the other end are a spirea and a flowering currant. Between and in front of these shrubs are perennials, mostly asters and irises, along with an acanthus, several peonies, and some self-seeded fillers.

In 2017, we had the roof reshingled. This summer, we had the house painted, including the wooden window frames and ornamental strips. Some stucco repair was also needed.

I suppose it’s not realistic to expect roofers, stucco dudes, painters and other tradespeople (tradesmen, in my experience) to be careful around plants. They’re being paid to apply shingles, stucco, or paint, and that’s what they do. Despite my efforts to tie plants back and indicate paths to the spots needing to be worked on, plants sustained some degree of damage.

The irises below two of the windows whose trim was painted bore the brunt — stomped on, broken, mashed and trampled. Okay, they were in late summer decline and didn’t look great, but still… Luckily, this is the right time of year to divide irises and move peonies, so I’m telling myself this disaster is an opportunity in disguise. When I replant, I’ll build in a buffer zone.

Pale yellow irises with dark red purple bearded irises
What’s left of these irises are now refugees awaiting repatriation.

My advice for anyone designing new plantings would be to leave a generous buffer zone between the house and any substantial plantings. It should be at least 3 feet/1 metre wide and either paved or planted with lawn, tough groundcover, or expendable annuals. Keep larger shrubs (anything taller than 3 feet/1 metre) even farther away from the house, at least 8 feet. (And that means the farthest outward growth of the shrub or tree, not the main stem or trunk.) Whoever has to wash, repair, patch, or paint will be grateful. So will the plants.


*It seems foundation garments are now called “shapewear.” That’s quite a different thing from the power girdles and conical bras of past decades. (I’ll bet they’re still uncomfortable.)

Featured image from Pixabay

34 comments

  1. Not to mention the roots can cause cracks in the foundation resulting in leakage and water damage. Here in Spain, we got rid of all foundation plants and tiled the beds over. Now I have plants in pots in front. They look nice and are easily moved. A great article.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Workmen have no respect for gardens or the people whose plants they stomp on. And they leave bloody great holes where their ladders dug into the ground!
    Not a lot of choice for us gardeners though, do we care for our house or our garden, seems we cannot do both sometimes…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I never made the connection between house foundation plants and foundation garments. (That’s usually the type of word association I groove on.) “Foundation plantings are groups of shrubs, small trees, and herbaceous plants intended to hide a houseโ€™s concrete foundation, which is thought to be an eyesore, or somehow indecent, like a foundation garment.” Good advice as always and it provided me with an early morning chuckle.

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  4. Great advice! When we bought our house over 30 years ago, it came with a large spruce tree (we’re talking 30 feet) just 10 feet or so from the foundation. In another location were large, overgrown junipers close to the foundation. We had to have the spruce professionally removed due to size, and took my son 2 days to dig the stump out! We managed to remove the junipers ourselves, but it was quite an operation! Lesson learned. We certainly won’t be planting anything near foundations!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We don’t have that concept here in Australia, but I do love the look of it. Because we live in a high bushfire danger area, I designed the areas directly around the house to be all rockeries and pebbles. I would have preferred a ‘cottage garden’ look but them’s the breaks.

    I’m sure your iris will bounce back better than ever. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fire safety must come first, of course. I replanted the irises and some other things a couple of days ago, after digging out tree roots that had snuck in, and adding a load of compost. We’ll see how things are next spring!

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      1. I had to dig up a rose that was doing poorly. Discovered a whopping fat root from one of the gum trees had nestled up next to it. Mongrel! Chopped it back and gave the rose some TLC. It’s doing beautifully now. I suspect your irises will surprise you with how happy they with a good feed and no competition. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Yep. Plus the soil is so dry under the eaves. I love plantings that are along the perimeter or next to a sidewalk. It is such a pleasure to see flowers up close and also the plants then provide a great view from within the house.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. My impression is the foundation planting approach regards plants more like furniture than living things. And it’s when they act like living things — i.e., they grow — that trouble ensues. And the complement to the foundation planting is usually the old school lawn. It’s often better to reduce or eliminate the lawn and design plantings suitable for the climate that are, as you say, beautiful.

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  7. I’ve experience here as well and it can be heartbreaking to see our ‘babies’ mistreated. I now keep shrubs trimmed around the house so one can walk around the house. As an aside, placing pallets over beds can reduce damage to plants and give workers something to stand on. Better than nothing, I suppose!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve finally realized that not everyone has the same feelings for plants as we gardeners, so it’s not realistic to expect them to avoid damaging them. Best to keep a space clear, as you say. And the pallet idea sounds worthwhile; at least the damage might be limited. Thanks for reading and commenting, Eliza!

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  8. Great article. I am a gardener by heart, and I rescue plants, etc. when I know by experience that I am not able to save every plant, and yes, I have put them up against my mobile home. Bad, really bad. So when we get another home, for sure I am not putting plants up against the foundation. I have a lot of irises too, and one thing I did in my small property was to plant them around one of my trees and I left plenty of space around it for it to grow. Thank you for the wise advice.

    Liked by 1 person

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