The front, side and back entrances of your home are among the most heavily trafficked areas of a yard or garden. It is easy to notice the glaring flaws in the foundation plantings at these entrances and to continually intend to add them to the long to-do list, but now is the time to attend to your list and beautify the areas passed through day in and day out.
There are three ways to approach this beautification: rejuvenation, renovation or replacement. December is not a month usually associated with gardening, but it is the optimum time to evaluate the garden by looking at troublesome areas and determining which approach to take to improve them. Walk around the perimeter of your house and look at each individual bed. Is it pleasing? Does it look healthy and well taken care of? Are the plants overgrown or unhealthy? Is the shrubbery out of shape after too many years of improper crown pruning? If so, there are some simple steps to follow so this important part of the landscape will be in top form by late spring or summer.
Where to Start?
Decide which area needs the most attention. Always start at whichever entrance, front or back, that receives the most traffic or the area that is the most unpleasing. Sometimes it is difficult to identify exactly what the problems are. One way is to take photographs from different angles and at different times of the day. Download them and print them on 8 by 11-inch paper. The shape of the beds can be changed on paper before the shovel leaves the garage. Plants of different sizes and shapes can be drawn in to help determine which one is best. This is a very helpful way to evaluate the target area because all of the other distractions are taken away. It is amazing what glaring mistakes photographs will show. The camera does not lie.
If shrubbery is overgrown or has been pruned improperly and looks more like one of Dr. Seuss’s drawings with greenery only at the top and a woody, scraggly bottom, then rejuvenating pruning may be the solution. Many common foundation plants such as Youpon holly, dwarf pittosporum, podocarpus and Burford holly respond well to proper rejuvenation pruning. Late February to early March is the optimum time to do this type of pruning. Youpon holly can be cut all the way to the ground and usually grows back in one season. Dwarf pittosporum and podocarpus respond well to medium pruning and should put forth vigorous new growth by spring. American boxwood does not respond as well to major pruning. It should be cut back by thirds over a three to four year period. However, one type of boxwood, “Winter Gem” or “Winter Green,” does respond well to a medium pruning approach. When pruning, make sure the tools are very sharp and that each cut is made at a joint on the stem. Liriope, which is commonly used as a border plant, responds beautifully to a major pruning or shearing to the ground in February and will grow back by the end of spring.
This approach to redoing the foundation plantings refers more to the structure of the bed. If the plants are healthy and in good shape but have outgrown their boundaries, it may be beneficial to enlarge the bed and give it better definition. If the plants are growing over the edge of the border, it may be as simple as enlarging the bed by a foot or two. Defining the edge of the bed is a simple way to renovate the bed by making it look neater and more defined. Two successful ways to define the borders is to create a V-shaped trench or to install a soldier course or running bond course of bricks.
Sometimes there are no other options than to replace the foundation plantings. If American or English boxwoods are in the foundation and badly out of shape, it may be more efficient to replace them than to try to rejuvenate them. If hollies are planted at the corners and are higher than the roof, it may be more cost effective to replace them than to prune them. If the trees surrounding the planting area have grown and are providing much more shade than when the foundation was planted it may be time to replace the plants with more shade tolerant varieties. Or, if large trees have been removed and there is more sun exposure, more sun and heat tolerant plants may need to be considered.
If the budget does not allow for complete replacement, one approach is to remove the plants, enlarge or change the shape of the beds, define the borders and fill the beds with pine straw or mulch. New plants can be added in stages when the budget allows. Sometimes, no plants are better than unhealthy or unsightly ones.
A simple solution and a quick renovation is to add a container or two at the front or back entrance. The planters should be large enough to hold adequate soil and accommodate the root ball of the plants. Choose the largest containers that will not interfere with the passageway. Plants thrive better in larger containers because there is more soil and room for the roots, and more moisture is retained after watering. The root ball will not be so tight or bound that the water runs off. On the other hand, if there are existing containers that contain plants that are not thriving, it may be better to remove the containers if they are too time consuming to maintain.
Before and After
The sample garden in the photographs is a good example of a foundation planting that needs renovation and replacement. The plants have outgrown their borders and have lost their natural shape. It was decided that rejuvenation pruning was not an option because the main bushes are American boxwood that do not respond very well to severe pruning. Some plants are struggling because the sun conditions have changed. Trees have grown much taller and bigger and are shading out the light. A new plan of the beds was drawn. The foundation beds were enlarged to accommodate growth of the new plants, organic soil amendments were added, the borders were defined by a trench edge and mature plants that thrive in morning sun and afternoon shade were installed to blend in with the surrounding existing plants.
The containers at the front door are in scale with the architecture of the house and the size of the landing. They were given a fresh coat of matte black paint, and the plants were replaced with more shade tolerant varieties.
Follow the Steps
Improving the foundation plantings of the areas that greet guests and family can be accomplished easily by using one or more of the three steps to improving the garden: rejuvenation, renovation and replacement. As in the example shown, the problem was identified, the plan was drawn, the beds were renovated and the plants were replaced. The containers were revived and replanted, and in a few short weeks this entrance garden went from tired to terrific!