Choosing Hedges and Foundation Plants

cotoneasterFlickr Dhwright

Some of the most common questions we get at the nursery revolve around hedges and foundation plantings. A hedge is simply a closely-planted row of plants which can serve as barriers to foot traffic, markers to define walkways or property lines, screens for unsightly views, or windbreaks that influence the heating and cooling of the yard through the year.

The foundation of the garden

Foundation plants (planted along the foundation of a building) can be a relaxed mixture of species or a more formal hedge of one, but in most cases some plants are evergreen to provide interest in the winter. They draw attention to the house while tying it to the landscape and defining an edge to the garden. Fragrant plants will really shine here as their scent can waft about a window, deck or porch. Factors to consider include roof overhangs that drop snow and waterfalls of rain (or block both like an umbrella), salt exposure from icy walks and differences in soil acidity due to concrete leaching. Beyond this, plant choice is mostly an exercise in personal taste and available space. It is important to consider the mature size so plants don’t run into the roof, brush up against a wall or block window views.

Creating a hedge

Planting a hedge is straightforward: place the plants in a row at their recommended spacing so when they are near maturity they will just touch each other to form a continuous planting. If planted too close their interiors will become devoid of foliage and the plants are more stressed and prone to pests and disease. Slow-growing plants make an instant effect difficult, but faster-growing plants overwhelm limited space quickly and require frequent trimming to keep them in check. As with any gardening activity, choosing plants also depends on light levels and soil conditions. Other considerations, such as browsing deer will also impact your choices.

A row of flowers

Favorite flowering hedges include roses, forsythia, spiraea, weigela and azaleas. But can you imagine a row of dwarf lilac, hydrangeas, dwarf crapemyrtle or sweetspire? If you want blooming shrubs in mid- to late summer, try the cool gray-blues of bluebeard, the tropical flair of hibiscus or the fragrant summersweet. Many of these plants also reward you with glorious fall color – one of the decided benefits of not being evergreen!

A hedge with an edge

Want a hedge that will say “keep out?” Lots of people turn to prickly plants to keep wandering kids and pedestrians at bay. You may be familiar with colorful but thorny barberry. Pyracantha and quince also look innocent, but push through their branches and you are greeted by serious thorns. Although many hollies are relatively tame, Chinese holly, English holly and ‘Dragon Lady’ have painfully sharp leaf spines you won’t soon forget. Osmanthus is a holly-like option with fragrant flowers and no berries. Cotoneaster (right) makes a striking hedge, especially when in berry.

The underused ducklings

Plenty of plants are great candidates for hedges but are overlooked because they are deciduous or not amenable to constant pruning. Mixing in a few evergreens or choosing plants based on size will enable them to make great additions to the landscape.

While privet is the most common deciduous hedge, the dwarf European cranberry bush (a type of viburnum) will do a nicer job. Their maple-shaped leaves are more interesting and they will not produce privet’s stinky flowers. What’s more, they have a defined presence in the winter from dense branches and do not require frequent trimming.

Willows are great for wet areas, and add great textural interest with the benefit of rapid growth. Rosemary-leaved willow has silvery leaves over reddish stems; dappled willow has pink and white-painted new leaves; ‘Flame’ willow has bright orange stems in the winter. Established plants can practically be pruned at will, and you can always weave those cut branches into baskets, mats or porch furniture! You can also try chokeberry, a native shrub with shiny red or black berries and glowing red fall color.

What’s in a name?

Anything, really, can be considered a hedge, but certainly there are more prevalent plant choices that dominate the landscape. Most commonly planted:Boxwood, Japanese Holly, Cherrylaurel, Privet, Red-tip Photinia, Euonymus, Forsythia, Burning Bush, Juniper, Arborvitae, Leyland Cypress, and Yew.

Fortunately for those who love to get out there and prune – one of the qualities that make most of these plants so popular is their tolerance for trimming.

by Miri Talabac, Woody Plants Specialist

Cotoneaster photo credit.

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. My wife and I are thinking about redoing our yard in the spring, and wanted to look up how to find some nice plants for it. I really like that you say to look for plants that will bring the attention to your house. It would be nice to get some plants that have something going on every season.

  2. Thank you Shad. We have lots of ideas on how to use different plants to make the garden (and therefore, from the outside view, the house too) interesting year-round. Our spring restocking of outdoor plants will be begin in earnest in March; I encourage you to visit us this spring season for a fantastic range of choices. We’re always here to help and we find that photos and/or sketches of the house and yard always aid in visualizing the landscape and how things fit together. Getting multi-season interest out of the garden is always rewarding and gets easier every season with the countless new plants being introduced every year.

  3. Should the hedges in a foundation planting be trimmed to follow the curve of the landscape or the straight horizontal lines of the siding/brickwork on the house?

  4. Dianna,

    That is a matter of aesthetics and personal preference, as I have seen both styles, but in my opinion it would look best when following the contours of the landscape. If accenting and echoing the house’s shape is preferred, though, then a hedge should be maintained in that style.

    Plants used in hedges should always be those most amenable to pruning, since anything but an informal hedge (like what we tend to call a “hedgerow”) is meant to be trimmed to some degree or another. Hedges with straight lines and a boxy look are best made with plants that have what we call a “fine” texture – small leaves or dense growth – so that, when trimmed, they can give the most refined look and show details like angles and corners. Boxwoods and Yews are very commonly used for this purpose. Hedges with undulating and curved lines can be made with anything, but here’s where the more “relaxed” and looser growth habits do best, since they naturally lend themselves to a more informal and wavy look. Abelia, Barberry, Ninebark and Inkberry are examples of plants more suited to this style.

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