Gardening Advice: Foundation Planting

Gardening Advice: Foundation Planting

October 3, 2001

Q: We have a sand-colored brick home that dates from the ’20s. I want more than just green in our foundation plantings. — Nelson Dickson, Shelby, N.C.

A: Before I recommend some plants, let me have a go at that infamous American tradition — foundation planting — which took hold after World War II. It suggests that a house is not properly landscaped unless it is anchored to the earth by the same monotonous groupings of yew, juniper and azalea. Hogwash. A garden should be free of this parsley-around-the-turkey syndrome. You should feel free to choose from the broadest palate of plants to create shapes and textures and define spaces that reflect the style and mood of your home. The number of plants you choose and their proportions to each other depend on the size of the planting area, of course, but don’t think that they have to be rammed against the wall for them to be stylish or correct. Explore the possibilities of graceful arching or low-spreading plants that blend together and take the hard edges off the rectangular outlines of brick homes.     

Blond brick is a color challenge. In choosing new plants stay with warm tones — peach, gold, rust, butter yellow, cream — and avoid cool pinks, lavender and magenta. Rich bronzy burgundy — the color of red seedless grapes — works especially well. In areas with a lot of direct sun, try native Fothergilla gardenii, whose clusters of fragrant, creamy flowers appear before its foliage unfurls in the spring. This small shrub turns striking orange and red in the fall. A smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria) — the purple-leaved forms or the green-leaved species — would set off the brick, especially from midsummer to late summer, when the “smoke” (the maturing flower panicles) assumes a tawny peach color. Fall adds fire to the smoke as the leaves turn into glowing shades of orange and burgundy. The tough gallica rose ‘Tuscany Superb,’ with velvety maroon flowers, would be a standout when combined with the similarly toned foliage of crimson barberry.     

In lightly shaded areas, consider brightening the dull tan brick with a succession of creamy flowers from a number of shrubs native to the Eastern states. Earliest to bloom is the flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum), with flowers in all shades of peach, warm yellow and orange. In late spring, the fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), a small, usually multistemmed tree that can reach 15 feet, opens fleecy panicles of fragrant flowers. Finally, the bulky spreading shrub bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is fabulous. Come summer, striking flowers resembling large tapers rise above handsome palmate foliage, lighting up the shaded garden.