All hemmed in
IF Carson Kressley did a series on “How to Look Good Naked” for the home, the thing that he would need to coax off many of our houses would be the coy ring of hedging around the foundations. America needs someone as observant and funny as him to turn our homes toward the mirror, point to the line of shrubs running beneath the living room windows and ask: “Why? What is so ugly about the line where structure meets earth?”
Landscape architects would cheer moving the bulk of the planting that we do with robust and architectural shrubbery out from beneath the eaves of our homes into our gardens. Cable installers would weep with joy. The meter readers from the gas company would no longer have to wear pith helmets. Most potently, gardeners would look at their yards with changed eyes.
On the other hand, the pith helmets look becoming on the meter readers. Removing the comforting dust ruffle of green around newly erected houses might put already-stressed real estate agents over the edge. Exterminators would lose business, and it would do away with the best excuse for not washing the windows.
The habit of encircling our homes has to have started somewhere. It’s hard to find a country willing to take credit, although the antecedents are everywhere. Using plants to mitigate problems of scale, particularly of oversized buildings on undersized lots, has to be as old as the circular driveway. Older. Let’s call it “timeless.”
But there is a big difference between strategically placed plants used to moderate the scale of an imposing house or to create a welcoming entrance, and a uniform collar of shrubbery, says Mia Lehrer, a Los Angeles landscape architect.
Put simply, one is punctuation, and the other is fortification. The sum effect of foundation planting is reinforcement of the footprint of the home. This effect can be prim -- make that prudish -- or it can be charming. The most beloved storybook image of an American home has to include a foundation hedge and lawn.
The problem with this scenario is the flattening effect. A garden planted away from the foundations out into the body of the yard gives a much greater sense of depth and texture. It won’t be storybook, but painterly.
Foundation planting in the U.S. first took root in the East and Midwest, where homes with raised cellars, window wells and unsightly divides between concrete and cladding made a hedge screen an almost automatic choice.
Michael Blier, a Harvard landscape architecture critic and principal of Landworks Studio Inc. in Boston, wonders if this use of shrubs as a “masking agent” didn’t interrupt our thinking about using shrubs in three-dimensional ways. Rather, they became things that were banked up against the house.
Blier is not alone in the desire to do some bodice ripping around our homes. A straw poll of a dozen landscape architects rounded up for this piece with the help of the American Society of Landscape Architects revealed a surprising depth of feeling among the professionals. There was not a single fan of the automatic tendency to plant around the home. L.A. landscape architect Lawrence Moline remarked, “On the whole it has a bad name, and it should have a bad name. It hasn’t been done well. It can be done well, but not as we know it.” He points to the uniform lines of plants pruned into solid blocks, or yews and junipers shaped into lollipops and gumdrops.
Venice landscape architect Pamela Palmer had to drive around, look at homes and think about it before she would comment. She came back wondering aloud if there wasn’t a primal sense of security involved in drawing most of the significant planting right up against the home, like restaurant customers reflexively choosing to sit along the walls in a restaurant.
Moline, now retired but part of the pair behind the Walt Disney Concert Hall gardens, senses a yearning for naturalism. “Somehow we want to plant our houses in a landscape. By having foliage adjacent to the walls, it does give that feeling.”
The disconnect between what landscape architects think and what we do is not as mysterious as it might seem. Most of our homes, tract, kit or custom, will have had architects involved at some point in the conception. Not so for our yards. The foundation hedge will be the handiwork of a builder intent on fluffing up a new development, or a weekend effort put in by us home gardeners.
We can do better, says Tim Johnson, director of horticulture of the Chicago Botanic Garden. All we need is encouragement. He’s ripped out his own foundation hedge and bounced back liberated and inspired to proselytize. He has his work cut out. Taking out anything is hard. But with foundation planting, there is a keen nakedness factor. “As you first pull out old shrubs, you’ll gasp a little bit,” he says. “But old foundation planting is unwelcoming. The best way to handle it is to start from scratch. It will have a huge, huge, impact.”
Among those emboldened to unbutton their homes, some might want to leave a clean corridor around the house and plant farther out on the property, perhaps where the lawn used to be. But for those who still want a gentle transition from lawn to house, Johnson sees ripping out the old foundation planting as an opportunity to bring in a more varied and poetic mix of trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers.
Here in Los Angeles, from her firm Artecho Architecture & Landscape Architecture, Palmer wonders if the habit of pushing shrubs up against the house isn’t linked to the expectation that most of the front garden will be a display of lawn. Moving the hedges, she says, would entail rethinking the lawn.
She’d like us to look carefully at our homes, allow ourselves to dream what we’d like from every angle, including the living room. (Most front hedges can be seen only from the street.) Then she’d like us to think in terms of “layers of privacy.”
Staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden feel so strongly about rethinking foundation planting that they are offering a public course in it. Nothing like that is on the agenda at Southern California public gardens, but one of the best public sources for alternative ideas for foundation planting is the downtown Central Library’s landscaping collection in the architecture section. Give yourself plenty of time to settle in and read. The librarians are inspiring, and it’s a fabulous collection.
For those who take on the project of loosening the chokehold of uniform shrubbery around their homes, Johnson has this quietly compelling promise from Chicago:
“It will make you feel better when you come home.”
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Life beyond the hedge
PERHAPS it’s time to take a close look at the ring of plants hugging your house. Here are tips and notes from some pros about foundation planting:
Drainage: Check the grade around the foundation to make sure rainwater is not flowing into the foundation. If the soil line has settled with drainage toward the house, remove old plants and correct the grade.
Watch the line: Do not let a soil or mulch line come above a stucco drainage point or clapboard. Keep the foundation area clear of organic plant matter, which will attract termites. Consider covering the immediate perimeter with gravel or stone.
Clearance: If planting near a house, leave at least two feet between the wall and plants. Check a plant’s drought and shade tolerance.
Watch those roots: Be careful not to choose plants with invasive root structures.
Careful with the water: Do not run irrigation around the base of the house.
Freeing the house: Consider leaving the immediate perimeter of the house clear and moving the planting beds into the main body of the garden. The plants will still frame the house from the street but will be enjoyable from inside the house too.
Mix it up: Instead of employing one type of shrub, consider a mix of trees, shrubs and perennial flowers.
Upkeep: Consider if you want the cost or formality of the heavily pruned geometric shapes typical of many foundation hedges.
Be height-wise: If landscaping beneath windows, be aware of plants’ growth rate and their eventual height.
-- Emily Green