Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
May, 2010
Regional Report

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What was once a cute little spruce when it was planted so close to the house now crowds the porch and blocks light to the windows.

The Foundation of a Good Foundation Planting

As I walk and drive around, I enjoy looking into other people's gardens, admiring certain plantings while seeing others as cautionary tales. The two most common landscaping mistakes I see are really just variations on the same error- not taking the mature height and spread of a plant into consideration when placing it in the garden.

I see what were once small shrubs when they were planted looming up in front of windows and porches, blocking views and light. I also see trees and shrubs encroaching on walks and driveways, or else chopped back so much to allow passage that their natural forms are destroyed.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that gardeners (professional landscapers can be guilty of this as well) want a new planting to look mature right from the start. But because few of us have the budget to start with really large plants (and because young trees and shrubs weather transplanting better), our new landscape plants are always going to need room to grow. My motto about a new planting is, "If it doesn't look sparse at first, the plants are too close together!"

So do your homework before you choose trees and shrubs. That little four foot high blue spruce you're thinking of putting in the front yard three feet from the driveway will eventually turn into a 30 to 60 foot tree with a 10 to 20 foot spread, and it will grow faster than you expect. Instead, you might choose the dwarf cultivar 'Fat Albert' that matures slowly to about 15 feet tall and 12 feet wide. (And even this one needs to be farther from the driveway!)

Poorly chosen (or poorly placed) foundation plantings are a frequent problem. Make sure you set trees and shrubs far enough away from the house that they can develop their natural forms and are not dying of thirst in the rain shadow of the eaves or growing up against the siding of the house. If the builder of your house set the front walkway a mere 3 feet out from the house, recognize that landscaping was not his or her strength and move the walk farther out, rather than trying to cram anything but very dwarf shrubs into such a small space. Under windows, choose plants whose mature height is lower than the bottom edge of the window. While you can keep larger shrubs lower with regular pruning, your gardening life will be much easier if you are not constantly working against the growth habit of your shrubs.

The following are some suggestions for attractive foundation shrubs that are hardy in our region and whose mature height is less than 5 feet.

Little-leaf Boxwood (Buxus microphylla) Fine textured and dense, these broadleaf evergreen shrubs make excellent foundation plants for a northern or eastern exposure, where they'll have some protection from winter wind and sun. The hybrids 'Green Velvet', 'Green Mountain' and 'Green Mound' are all hardy to Zone 4. All are 3 to 5 feet tall and wide.

Inkberry (Ilex glabra) This evergreen member of the Holly family has glossy, deep green leaves and a mounded form. The cultivar 'Shamrock' is slow-growing, with smaller leaves than the species and grows 3 to 5 feet tall and wide. It's listed as hardy to Zone 5, but often does well in a somewhat protected spot in Zone 4. 'Compacta' gets a little taller (4 to 6 feet tall and wide) and has a somewhat looser growth habit than 'Shamrock'; it's hardier (Zone 4b) as well.

Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) A deciduous shrub with creamy-white, bottlebrush-shaped flowers in spring, it also has attractive blue-green leaves and nice fall color. The cultivar 'Mt Airy" has consistently vivid red, yellow and orange fall color. It is listed in references as growing to 6 feet, but in my Zone 4 garden, it hasn't exceeded 4 feet tall in 15 years.

Compact Korean Spice Viburnum (Viburnum carlesii 'Compactum') Plant this small deciduous shrub near a walkway where you can appreciate the wonderful scent of its pale pink flowerheads in spring. Later in the season, bright red clusters of berries form, changing to black in the fall as the leaves take on burgundy tones. While the viburnum leaf beetle has decimated many species of viburnum in our region in the last few years, the Korean spice viburnum is listed by Cornell University as one that is most resistant to this pest. Growing 3-4 feet tall and wide, it's hardy to Zone 4.

Snowmound Spirea (Spiraea nipponica 'Snowmound') The arching branches of this small shrub are covered with pure white flower clusters in late spring. Blue-green foliage is fine textured. Growing 3-5 feet tall and wide, it is hardy to Zone 4.

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