house maintenance

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 passé, 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

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