By Bev Thierwechter
Piedmont Master Gardener
When choosing foundation plants for a new home, developers often pick a few conventional options to soften the lines of the building and provide a uniform look throughout the neighborhood or development. Many homeowners use a similar strategy when updating established plantings. By doing so, they miss a great opportunity to create a beautiful and unique backdrop for the home and a welcoming habitat for butterflies, bees, birds and other wildlife.
Choose Native Plants
Using native plants for foundation and other plantings has become popular in recent years because these plants are adapted to our local climate and need less maintenance once established. They require less water, fertilizer and pesticides, and thus reduce runoff and pollutants entering our waterways. They also support biodiversity by providing the food, pollen and nectar that form the basis for the food web and healthy ecosystems.
Traditionally, builders have not understood the importance of native plants, so non-native species were commonly used as foundation plantings. Some of these non-native plants are considered invasive; they can spread into nearby natural areas and harm local ecosystems by out-competing native plants and depriving birds, bees and other wildlife of necessary food and shelter. Using native plants in foundation and other plantings provides a good way to help restore habitat for wildlife and prevent the further spread of invasive plants.
Make a Plan
Begin to develop a design for the space by considering:
The effect you want to achieve (all-season blooming, berry and fall color, winter interest) and how to integrate different types of plants into the design.
The types of plants to use (deciduous or evergreen shrubs or small trees, perennials, annuals, ornamental grasses) and their placement and growth habits.
Plants appropriate for your specific site conditions (hardiness zone, sun or shade, soil conditions, drainage and space constraints).
Plants that are low maintenance and require little pruning, unless you are willing to devote the time for more upkeep.
Plants that will fit the space when mature, allowing access for house painting and window washing, clearance for dryer vents and repair of air conditioning units.
The cost of the initial plantings and yearly care.
Your design can even take into account the specific birds and pollinators you wish to attract!
Test the Soil
Be sure to get a soil test to find out the pH of the soil and what amendments are needed for your foundation plantings. Follow the soil test recommendations for fertilizer, organic materials and nutrients to build healthy soil and to help your foundation plantings thrive.
Choosing the right foundation native plants can be daunting. Here are some examples of recent plant selections for an existing home and new construction.
Renovation of a Mid-Nineties Landscape
At a home in White Hall, the 30-year-old foundation plantings included tightly packed, very large holly shrubs, a tree holly and overgrown Japanese maple bushes, along with a non-native viburnum, crepe myrtles, Japanese azaleas and dwarf nandinas.
With the overall goal of incorporating as many native plants as possible, the homeowners chose a looser, more natural look than the original foundation plantings. They also wanted to provide a welcoming habitat for native insects and birds. They selected these native plants with the sunny location and their eventual mature size in mind.
Inkberry—Ilex glabra, a native evergreen shrub, became the anchor for their design, with Illex glabra ‘Nigra’ for the back of the foundation and the fuller, shorter ‘Densa’ cultivar below the front windows. ‘Gembox’, a dwarf inkberry cultivar, was selected for the end of the front walk. Deer seldomly cause severe damage to this plant.
Virginia Sweetspire—Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’, a deciduous shrub, was chosen for its low maintenance and three-season interest, with white fragrant flowers in May and June, glossy green summer leaves, and red, orange and purple fall colors. Itea is deer resistant.
Fothergilla– Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Mount Airy’, a naturally occurring cross between two species of Fothergilla. This deciduous shrub has dark green to bluish-green leaves and good fall color. Its mature size (five to six feet tall and wide) is larger than the dwarf Fothergilla and smaller than the large Fothergilla. This plant is deer resistant.
Wild Hydrangea—Hydrangea arborescens ‘Abetwo’ INCREDIBALL, a hydrangea known for its large leaves, lovely flower heads that bloom for two months starting in June, and dried flower heads that provide winter interest. Protection from deer browsing may be needed.
Oakleaf Hydrangea—Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’, a compact deciduous shrub with dark green leaves shaped like oak leaves and conical white flower clusters that fade to tan or pink. Subject to damage by deer, the hydrangea was planted near an entrance to the house.
Mountain Laurel—Kalmia latifolia ‘Elf’, a dwarf evergreen with broad glossy leaves and clusters of white flowers that are attractive to many pollinators. It is usually deer resistant but susceptible to some insects, leaf spots and blights.
Red Switch Grass—Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, a native perennial switch grass with flower panicles of reddish-pink growing above the foliage and seed plumes lasting into the winter. The foliage is bluish green in spring but turns to burgundy by late June. It is deer resistant.
Pennsylvania Sedge—Carex pensylvanica, a perennial sedge that had been planted by the front walk, was transplanted into the foundation bed to act as a ground cover, reduce the need for mulch and provide food and habitat for insects. Pennsylvania sedge is deer resistant.
(For more information about this renovation, see the November 2022 issue of The Garden Shed at piedmontmastergardeners.org/garden-shed/.)
Foundation Planting at New Homes
Since 2021, the Piedmont Master Gardeners have worked with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville and its partner families to install foundation plantings and other landscaping at new Habitat homes, incorporating native plants and emphasizing their importance to the new homeowners.
The native plants used include such shrubs as sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), bayberry (Morella) and chokeberry (Aronia); perennials such as New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), goldenrods (Solidago), monarda and coreopsis; and grasses such as Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).
To guide your plant selections, the Piedmont Master Gardeners’ Native Plants webpage (piedmontmastergardeners.org/gardening-questions/native-plants/) provides links to site-specific plant lists, a Piedmont Native Plant Database, and other native plant database and plant finder search tools. The Plant Virginia Natives site (plantvirginianatives.org) has regional plant guides to help choose plants for your area. Plant NOVA Natives (plantnovanatives.org) has lists of foundation plantings, including native shrubs, native ground covers, and native plants that deter deer. The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (mgnv.org) lists “Tried and True Native Plants of the Mid-Atlantic” and fact sheets on best bets for specific site conditions.