10 Tips for Foundation Plantings

Gravel to the house- an attractive and practical option
Photo by Deborah Silver, Detroit Garden Works

Foundation plantings were originally used to hide the underbusiness of a house, much like a bed skirt hides a box spring.  They also acted as insulation-helping to keep the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Done well, they can serve to soften the look of the home in the landscape. Done badly, they can ugly things up, create mold problems, and damage your home. In the words of  Atlanta Landscape Designer Tara Dillard, many foundation “bushes are either leggy hags or green meatballs. “

Personally, I’m not a fan  foundation plantings. Too often,  shrubs and trees are planted right next to the house and hacked back to keep them small-or worse- they are let go and just eat the house. If the front of your home is attractive, why hide it?  Here are 10 things to keep in mind if you must plant around your foundation:

  1. DO have a plan. It doesn’t have to be a formal plan, but have some idea of your goals before you begin. Dragging random things home from the nursery and plunking them in may not give you the result you want.
  2. Remember, the trees and shrubs in the nursery are BABIES. That is why they call it a nursery. Feed them and water them, and they will grow.. A lot. That cute little Rhododendron maximum  or Yew in the one gallon pot will eat your house in twenty years.
  3. Match the plants to the scale of your home. A few dwarf shrubs in front of a large Colonial will look silly, or just flat get lost..
  4. Keep large trees well away from your home and electrical wires to minimize storm damage. Have existing trees trimmed away from the house, if possible. Keep smaller, ornamental trees 10-15 feet away from the foundation.
  5. A few feet of gravel held in by steel edging will ease drainage, prevent damage, and allow room for painting, window washing and other maintenance chores around the foundation. Use the bottom of an extended ladder to determine the width of the gravel bed. Or expand  the gravel for a more open, courtyard effect. Functional and attractive.
  6. Consider the view from inside your home. What do you see from your windows? What do you want to see? Do you need more privacy?
  7. Keep plantings away from doors and entryways. This gives your home a more open, welcoming feeling. A few well placed containers will give you all the color you need.
  8. Avoid  blocking windows. Let the air and light in!
  9. Limit plant varieties. Use and repeat the same variety, or several varieties of  shrubs for a more unified look.
  10. If you must have hydrangeas near the house- (of course you must- on Cape Cod we love our hydrangeas) give them room to grow and be what they want to be. Or select some of the many new compact or dwarf varieties.
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My Favorite Plants: Geranium “Rozanne”

Geranium “Rozanne” with Angelonia

What if I told you could have a plant that flowers nonstop from early summer to frost, doesn’t need deadheading, and comes back every year? You’d have to have it, right? I know I did.  I first saw Geranium “Rozanne” in my sister Laura’s garden.  I immediately fell in love with its pretty purple flowers with white centers. When she told me Rozanne just keeps on flowering all summer, I was hooked.  I planted one in my own garden, and now I plant it everywhere.

Voted “Perennial Plant of the Year” in 2008,  Rozanne was discovered in the garden of Donald and Rozanne Waterer in Somerset, England.  When the Waterers offered the plant to Adrian Bloom, owner of Blooms of Bressingham, he  saw  Rozanne’s potential. and began propagating the plant by tissue culture.

River of Geranium Rozanne, Elm Bank

Rozanne also  has a Massachusetts  connection.  Adrian Bloom designed The Bressingham Garden at Elm Bank in Wellesley,  home of the Massachusetts Horticulture Society.  On a recent visit there. I enjoyed  seeing Bloom’s “rivers” of  Rozanne. edged with Black-Eyed Susan and  Miscanthus “Morning Light”.

When growth begins in the spring, Rozanne forms a mound 12-24 inches high. As the season goes on it relaxes down and creeps through and around other plants in the garden., spreading as far as 4 to 5 feet.  Because of this habit, it makes a great filler or container  plant.  Give it plenty of room at the base and  cut back the wayward trailers if it gets out of hand. A mid-summer haircut will renew the plant and keep her attractive for the rest of the season if she starts looking ratty. Roseanne  grows best in well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Once established, she can be quite drought tolerant.

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Get the Most Out of Your Daylilies

Daylily “Happy Returns

Daylily season is winding down, and most of the plants I see are covered in seed heads or bare flower stalks. Right now, a little maintenance can make a lot of difference. Here are a few ways to get the most out of your daylilies:

  • Deadhead by cutting flower stalks as close to the ground as possible. Be careful not to cut newly emerging flower stalks on re-blooming  plants.
  • Remove brown or yellow leaves for a more attractive plant. If the leaves look really bad, as they often do at this time of year, the entire plant can be cut back to the ground.  Don’t worry- this won’t hurt the daylily.  It will grow a new batch of nice, green leaves and fill in quickly.
  • Re-blooming daylilies like “Happy Returns” or “Stella d’oro,”  will benefit from a good watering and feeding right now.  Gently work fertilizer into the soil, being careful not to disturb the roots. Make sure your plant is well hydrated, but no wet, before feeding. I like to use about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of   Plant-Tone® around each lily.
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“My hydrangeas are too big! Can I cut them back without losing the flowers?”

Hydrangea blocking windows

When talking with homeowners, this is the question that comes up the most, hands down. Their lovely, old plantings of  hydrangea are gorgeous, but they are blocking the windows, doorways, driveways, or ocean view. They are flopping on to the deck, or on the plants in front of them.

Technically, the answer to the question  is yes- mophead hydrangeas, even those varieties that bloom on old wood, like “Nikko Blue”- can be cut back if it is done before August, when they set buds for next year’s bloom.  I hate to do this, but it can be done. Believe me, it isn’t pretty. And it is only a short-term solution. The mopheads will keep growing back, and they will get just as big as they were before.

My best advice in these situations is to move the hydrangeas. They are going to be what they are going to be. There is no way to keep them small and still attractive year after year. Find a nice home for them with plenty of room  to grow,  morning sun, some afternoon shade, and plenty of moisture. They will  require much less maintenance, (which is always the case when you work with nature, not against it) and reward you with years of beautiful blooms.

If you want hydrangea close to the house, there are plenty of well-behaved varieties that will stay smaller. The Cityline series of Hydrangea are compact, topping out at 3-4 feet. They are available in a variety of colors. My favorite is Cityline Rio, below.

Cityline Rio Hyydrangea

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Four ways to make your hydrangeas blue

Hydrangeas are a Cape Cod icon, and for most people, the bluer they are, the better. Personally, I enjoy the multicolored look, above- it’s like a big, colorful, hydrangea party. But if blue is for you, here’s what to do:(Kinda sounding like Dr.Seuss here.)

  1. When planting hydrangeas, take the time and effort to prepare the bed properly. This is much easier and more effective than trying to correct the problem after planting. Fill the bed with rich compost and loam, and mix in lots of leaf mold or peat moss. (I prefer leaf mold because it is more sustainable, but it is not always available.) To prevent wilting and fading of flower color, Locate the bed where the plants will get morning sun and be shaded in the afternoon. Dig the bed down into the earth, rather than mounding it up. This will catch and hold the available water, and hydrangeas love water. Feed hydrangeas with Holly-tone® 4-3-4 at planting time, and yearly in the spring. Mulch with pine straw, if possible. This will acidify the soil as it breaks down. The ideal soil ph for blue hydrangeas is 5.2-5.5.
  2. OK, so it’s not a perfect world. Your hydrangeas are already planted, and your soil ph is hovering around 7.0. You have a much more difficult task ahead of you, and results can be iffy.  Feed your plants with Holly-tone® 4-3-4 once a year in Spring when new growth begins to emerge. Add Aluminum Sulphate to soil a week or two later. Aluminum will make flowers blue, and Sulfur will lower the ph of the soil to make the aluminum available to plants.
  3. Top dress soil with leaf mold or peat moss, and mulch with pine straw. Pine bark breaks down more slowly, but it is a good alternative mulch.
  4. Be aware that lime can leach from surrounding areas to hydrangea beds. Lime in foundations, on lawns, and in shell driveways can raise your soil PH and turn your hydrangeas purple or pink. Despite your best efforts, you may not get the results you want with established plantings.

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Hydrangeas wilting? What you can do

If your hydrangeas wilt in the heat of the day, should you panic? Probably not. A little wilting and curling of the leaves can be normal on a hot, sunny afternoon. Most likely, your hydrangeas will perk up as soon as things cool down in the evening, and recover completely by morning.

When should you worry? If the flowers are wilted, and the leaves are turning brown, it is time to take action. Those thirsty plants need water, and plenty of it. Plants that get to this stage will survive, but the brown leaves and flowers will make plants unsightly for the rest of the summer.

Water at the soil level, being careful not to wet the leaves.  keep the water on long enough to soak deep into the roots. if you are hand watering, let the water sink in and go back 5-6 times until the earth around the plants is saturated.

If you have drip irrigation, run the program for two 20 minute cycles a day in the summer,  with the second cycle running  between 11:30 AM and noon. This will hydrate the plants just before the hottest part of the day and prevent severe wilting. A soaker hose with a timer is another good option.

How can you prevent this problem?

Plant new hydrangeas in rich soil amended with lots of leaf mold, and locate them in an area where they get plenty of morning sun, but afternoon shade. You will use much less water, and your plants thank you for it with beautiful flowers that last all summer long.

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Timing is Everything

Blooming early this yearShe wanted daffodils, as many as I could get. She wanted to drive up to her house and see them everywhere.  And so they are – big, beautiful bulbs at the entrance, along the drive, and in front of the house. I admit I was a little nervous when the warm weather triggered them to come up in December. But they are fine, just blooming earlier than they normally would.  The flowers are huge and amazing.

She is out-of-town,  and won’t be back until next week.  I hope they last until she gets here.

My favorite source for bulbs is Van Engelen wholesale. John Scheepers is their retail counterpart, and the quality is incredible.

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