Designing a landscape with Foundation Pieces

Strive for attractiveness, functionality, and practicality.

Doing a landscape refresh requires one primary focus… the right foundational plantings. 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.

By the way, if you haven’t read our previous blog on “Understanding Foundation Plantings & Avoiding The Faults” be sure to do so now! Trust us, this blog will be significantly more valuable with the additional content provided here.


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 in Scottsdale, Arizona; so why not give these guidelines a try as you design your own luxury landscape?

Incorporate Taller Plants

While expensive, taller plants can make all the difference in your landscape design if used properly. Use taller plants on the corners of your residence to help soften the vertical lines of the structure. The use of taller plants on the corners also helps give your landscape some relief from rigid horizontal lines that are all too common in a simplistic foundation planting layout. 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 residence 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 or Overhang

The roof overhang refers to how much the edge of the roof goes beyond the house siding. Under the overhang you can find a structure known as the soffit. Most homes have an overhang, however, length varies depending on the style of the 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. Following this guideline while planting taller plants will decrease the chances of running into the “You Don’t Belong There” effect we covered in our previous writing.

Don’t Cover Windows

When designing your foundation plantings, put extra emphasis on what types of plantings will be positioned in front of the windows. For most homes, use lower-growing or dwarf plants under the windows. Most windows in Scottsdale residences 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, check out the Three Timbers Plant Guide to find some low-growing grounds covers. These low-growing shrubs are perfect for low windows because they can vary in size from a maximum height of 2 feet down to only a couple of inches. To sum this guideline up: Measure the space you have from ground level to your window sill, and then find a plant that falls within the ½ to ¾ height rule.

P.S. An advantage to varying the heights of plants around windows is that it assures that there will be variety in your landscape layout.

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. Be sure to avoid the “Give Them Some Room” effect.

Strike 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.

More Than One Row

If 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 desert 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.

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!


These 10 guidelines may not address every single nuance associated with planning your foundation plantings, but using these guidelines as a reference when doing your own landscape refresh will greatly enhance your chances at success. Good luck. Have fun. And don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you have any questions.

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