Upgrading Your Landscape Design with Foundation Plants​

exciting foundation planting landscape with wide variety of trees, bushes, and flowers.

Adding plants around your foundation is a great way to elevate the curb appeal of your home. From proper plant selection, to developing a thoughtful foundation plant design, you will be amazed at how much a simple landscape can transform your home.

If you’re doing a landscape refresh, choosing the right foundation plants will make or break your design. Foundation plantings are those plants you choose to plant near or against your home or other buildings. These plants determine the core theme for the rest of your landscape design; that’s why understanding how to design your foundation plantings are so important.

The Basics of Foundation Plant Design

Throughout the entire process of designing your foundation plantings, you should strive to for attractiveness, while ensuring that your landscape is functional, easy to maintain, and serves the purposes you envision for your yard. The following are 10 guidelines we use on every landscape refresh project we do in Arizona and Minnesota, which should give you a solid guideline as you try to design your own luxury landscape.

Incorporate Taller Plants

While expensive, taller plants can make all the difference in your landscape design if used properly. We recommend using taller plants on the corners of your home to help soften the vertical lines. Using taller plants on the corners also helps give your landscape some relief from rigid horizontal lines that are all too common in standard foundation planting layouts.

The rule of thumb we use is that the corner plant or plants should be no more than ½ to ¾ the height of the corner of the house at full maturity. This measurement is taken from ground level to the lowest point of the “eaves” or overhang. For context, a typical one-story home on a flat lot will have an average overhang of 8-10 feet off of ground level.

Eaves and Overhangs

As mentioned, it’s important to plan your landscaping around the eaves and overhangs of your home. When following the ½ to ¾ height rule, medium-sized shrubs of 4 to 6 feet in height can be used on the corners of one-story residences; while large shrubs or short trees of 7 to 12 feet can be used on the corners of large one-story homes and two-story residences. This helps prevent your landscaping from feeling a little off (something we like to call the “you don’t belong here” effect).

Don’t Cover Windows

When designing your foundation landscape, we recommend putting extra emphasis on what types of plantings will be positioned in front of the windows. For most homes, it’s best to use lower-growing or dwarf plants under the windows. Odds are your windows will be high enough that some type of dwarf shrub of some species will provide beautiful foliage without creating an overgrown look that covers the windows. In the rare instance that a window ends up being very low to the ground, it would be best to consider low-growing shrubs with a maximum height of 2 feet down to only a couple of inches.

When planning what plants to put in front of the window, measure the space you have from ground level to your window sill, then find a plant that falls within the ½ to ¾ height rule.

Pro Tip: Introducing a variety of different plant heights around your windows will create a nice balance throughout your landscape.

Rose bush foundation plants in front of windows

Mature Sizes Only

No, this doesn’t mean we recommend you plant your foundation plants at their full mature size. Actually, if you have a large pile of cash hidden away, we do recommend planting full mature plants, it’ll be very expensive… but it will create instant fullness.

Sorry for getting sidetracked, back to the point: It is important to design the foundation plantings as if the plants are at mature size. Whether you are drawing the plants on a drafting paper or using the eye-ball test when placing your plants, be sure to allow them to barely touch or almost touch when they are full grown. This will give your landscape a mass effect without making your landscape overcrowded.

Creating a Balance

Foundation plantings should maintain balance. If a home or even a part of a home is symmetrical, each side of the symmetrical parts should be landscaped equally. If a home is asymmetrical (unequal), the design of the foundation plants becomes more difficult. With an asymmetrical home, the landscape should try to use equal amounts of greenery (foliage, leaves, cacti, evergreen) on each side of the home. If the home’s structure is heavier on one end due to a shorter roof, less wall space, or recessed doorways, add more greenery to the light side of the design to balance the home.

Symmetry is a simple concept. In it, each side of a shape is a duplicate of another – so if you could fold an object across itself, the pieces would match perfectly. In architecture, symmetry refers to the geometry of a building. This means that the building is the same on either side of the axis. While there are multiple facets of architectural symmetry, the two most common types are Bilateral and Radial. In Bilateral Symmetry, two sides act as mirror images of each other and can be vertical (up and down axis) or horizontal (across the axis). In Radial Symmetry, the pieces “bloom” from a central axis, like a starfish or a tulip flower. You might see this in architecture in gazebos or cupolas.

Tim Bakke

Smaller Plants in Front

If you’re planning to use more than one row of plants in the foundation planting, be sure to place the taller-growing plant near the structure being landscaped around. This may seem like a simplistic guideline to follow, but people accidentally plant the low growing plants behind small shrubs all the time.

Remember, the size of plant when planting won’t necessarily be the size of that same plant when reaching full maturity. Always, check that plant heights prior to creating multiple rows.

Evergreens are Always Green

If the decision is made to add evergreen plants to your landscape, be sure to place them closest to the wall. Deciduous (leafy) plants can look a little rough around the edges when all their leaves fall off for the season. Choosing to place evergreen plants along the wall will decrease the harsh effect created by deciduous plants in the winter.

Harsh Curves Leads to a Harsh Life

Harsh curves lead to a harsh life. This phrase may be slightly over exaggerated, but there certainly is some truth to the comment. Choosing to create a landscape edge with choppy curves makes it very difficult to mow, and, on top of that, choppy curves just looks outright confusing. Therefore, whether you have a lawn or a desertscape, design your landscape borders with long, sweeping curves to distinguish plant beds from other portions of the property.

Don’t be Boring

When designing foundation plantings use three or more different heights of plants. The more differentiation in height used, the greater variety and interest in the landscape appearance. Three Timbers prioritizes different heights to avoid the “Soldier Cut” effect, to help improve the overall health of the landscape.

exciting foundation planting landscape with wide variety of trees, bushes, and flowers.

Entryway Highlight

The entryway of most homes is the highlight of the front exterior. Be sure the entry is also highlighted by your foundation plantings. Use medium or taller plants on either side of the entry to focus attention to the entry. This change in height near the entry, creates a natural variation drawing guests into the front door.

No Copycats

Just like you weren’t supposed to be a copycat growing up, your foundation plants shouldn’t be copycats, unless it’s a symmetrical landscape. When creating a design for foundation plantings there should be some repeating plants on each half of the home to give an organized look but there should not be exact repetition. Get creative with it. Add some fun to your layouts!

Foundation Plant Design Mistakes to Avoid

Foundation landscape design has evolved quite a bit over the past few years. What started with a sparce set of shrubs along your front yard have evolved into a thoughtful blend flowers and bushes that create a fun, functional environment for your family to enjoy. While most homeowners are used to the traditional approach to foundation planting, here are a few mistakes to avoid to ensure you’re getting the most out of your space.

The “Watching Paint Dry” Design

The first mistake we most often see is something we call the “watching paint dry” effect (common industry name: Toy Soldier Effect). This landscape type applies one species of landscape plant, often round or square, spread equally apart, with 1-3-foot gaps between plants. Can you guess why we call it the “watching paint dry” effect? This might be a little harsh, but we call this the “watching paint dry” effect because it’s boring, monotonous, and truly lacks creativity. Also, having a bunch of plants pruned constantly to meet this look, is bad for the plants and wastes a ton of water on your landscape!

Example graphic displaying the "watching paint dry effect" of rigid plant spacing

The “Overgrown” Approach

The second effect we see more often than not is the “you don’t belong there” effect (common industry name: “overgrown” Effect). There’s no hidden meaning to this name. This landscape design involves plants that don’t belong in their planted locations. The plants are too large for the rooflines, cover up the windows of the homes, or grow into the sidewalks and driveways. This design smothers the home, and, in addition to a messy look, these plants require a ton of maintenance to control their size.

Graphic explaining the overgrown landscaping design approach

The Crowded Approach

The “give them some room” effect (common industry name: “crowded” effect), is a hodge-podge of random plants all jammed in to one space. These landscapes are often large masses of plants being installed too close together at the time of planting. This mistake often occurs when two things happen:

  1. People over design their landscape. Whether it’s a designer or homeowner designing the foundation plantings, sometimes people can try to add too much to the landscape. Adding more plants isn’t always better. Plants can get overcrowded, creating an unorganized look.
  2. The designer or homeowner want the landscape to look perfect right away! If you aren’t buying trees, shrubs, and desert plants fully grown, the landscape install should not look instantly full. The “give them some room” effect commonly occurs when people try to create the instant fullness look, but instead, as the plants mature, they get a landscape full of plants that lose their individual identity.
Home graphic explaining the crowded landscaping approach

The “Buzz Cut” Effect

We’ve all had that friend that got their haircut way too short. That same idea is applied to the “buzz cut” effect (common industry name: “clipped” effect), when all of the plants are given a regular “buzz cut” and maintained with a very smooth edge. It’s not that we don’t like this look, because if we are going to be honest about it, the clean, modern trim is often stunning for contemporary properties. Unfortunately, there is a serious downside to the “buzz cut” effect… it stunts a plant’s unique growing habits, leading to plant stress and sometimes plant death.

Example of the 'clipped' landscaping approach featuring short trimmed plants.

The Lopsided Effect

The “lopsided” effect (common industry name: “unbalanced” effect), occurs when the landscape design has too many plants, or plants that are too large on one side of the planting bed and not the other. There is an uneven amount of foliage on one side, resulting in a landscape that appears tilted and uneven.

Graphic of the lopsided landscaping effect featuring an uneven design with short plants on one side and tall on the other.

The Hedge Approach

The last effect to watch out for is the “soldier cut” effect (common industry name: “hedge” effect). This is similar to the “buzz cut” effect, both effects are caused by over trimming and constant trimming. The “soldier cut” effect is when foundation plants are trimmed in a continuous shape. Some say this lacks variety, but we won’t speculate on people’s opinions. What we will say with certainty, is that cutting your hedges into a continuous shape will give your foundation no relief from the horizontal lines and will start to burn out different portions of your plants.

Graphic explaining the buzz cut hedging approach featuring boxy cut hedges.

Getting the Most Out of Your Foundation Plant Design

These tips may not address every single nuance associated with planning your foundation landscaping, but they will act as a guideline to help you achieve your dream yard. If you want to get the most out of your space, we recommend taking the proper time to research, plan, and draw up different designs. Once you have everything laid out the way you like, then you bring out the shovel.

If this process looks a little daunting, it might be good to reach out to your local landscaping professionals. If you happen to be located near one of our locations in Scottsdale AZ, or Chanhassen MN, make sure to give us a call! Whether it is a small landscaping refresh, or comprehensive foundation plant design, our team is here to help.