Garden Design

Jazz Up Your Foundation Plantings


Foundation plants aren’t usually thought of as the sexiest beasts in the landscape. You may have a few stunning specimens here and there, but many foundation plantings manifest as “green meatballs” all in a row.

There’s no law, though, that says foundation plants have to be this boring. What is generally required is a tough guy, a plant that comes through summer and winter and still looks fairly unscathed. Height is also an issue since you don’t want to block windows with plants that have gotten too tall.

What follows is a short list of lean, green machines that are heat tolerant and low maintenance with at least one key ornamental feature that makes it stand out. Most are evergreen. All, except those noted, are deer resistant.

Encore Azalea

Low to Medium Shrubs

Encore, Bloom-A-Thon, and ReBLOOM azaleas– Azaleas, the classic Southern plant, now come in many varieties that bloom at least twice a year. Most grow 3-4 feet or 4-5 feet tall and wide. Regular water during dry spells insures maximum bloom. Plant in part sun to light shade. These are not deer resistant.

‘Golden Mop’ Falsecypress

‘Golden Mop’ falsecypress  – This conifer adds grace and fine texture to the landscape with golden, pendulous, thread-leaf branchlets. 4-6 feet tall by 4-5 feet wide. Plant in full to part sun. ‘Vintage Gold’ has feathery, almost fern-like golden foliage.


‘Lake Tresca’ ligustrum– Arching sprays of bright, thick leaves on ‘Lake Tresca’ add a flowing effect suggestive of wind and water. Spikes of cream-white flowers in spring are a nice bonus. Grows to about 3-4 feet tall and wide in either sun or light shade.

Dwarf abelia– Almond-shaped foliage, often fantastically variegated, on arching branches or loosely rounded mounds. Tubular white, occasionally pink, flowers all summer followed by rosy-pink calyces that look like little flower clusters. Mostly evergreen. Dwarf varieties such as ‘Little Richard’ and ‘Mardi Gras’ grow 3-4 feet tall and wide. Plant in full to part sun.

Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’

Nandina – Super-tough, easy to grow, and evergreen. There are two general groups: little low growers that turn red in winter sun but don’t fruit and somewhat taller varieties 3-6 feet with more feathery foliage, burgundy new growth, and clusters of small white spring flowers followed by bright red berry clusters. Plant in sun or shade.

Dwarf Indian hawthorn – The shiny, compact foliage is handsome, turning a nice burgundy in winter, and the masses of pink or white flower clusters in spring are quite pretty. Plant in full sun. Not deer resistant.


Loropetalum (Fringe bush) – Most feature rounded, wine-purple foliage and bright fuchsia pink fringe-like flowers in spring that resemble shredded coconut. Unpruned, they have an arching tiered habit but they can also be sheared into formal shapes. Dwarf varieties reach 4-6 feet tall. These are generally deer resistant with occasional munching in winter.

Specimen Trees

Japanese maple – Not evergreen but with excellent fall color. Fascinating architecture and attractive, smooth bark make up for lack of evergreen foliage especially when you put fairy lights on them in winter. Stunning palmate foliage, often dissected, and in accent colors such as burgundy, chartreuse, or peachy-copper is another great reason to grow these maples. Habit varies from upright to spreading. Plant in morning sun to light shade.

Crepe Myrtle –Though not evergreen, they provide a long season of colorful blooms in summer, fantastic fall color in many cases, and beautiful bark with handsome architecture in winter. Crepe myrtles are heat and drought tolerant, pest and disease resistant, too. Plant these in full blazing sun.

Upright and Narrow Accent Plants

Camellia sasanqua

Columnar camellia – Excellent flowering in fall on shrubs with a more narrow habit and handsome lustrous foliage that stays evergreen: try ‘Autumn Rocket’ (white flowers) and ‘Slim ‘n Trim’ (pink flowers). Plant in morning sun to light shade.

‘Sky Pencil’ holly – For when you need an extra-slender vertical accent, ‘Sky Pencil’ holly is your girl. Dark green foliage similar to boxwood in size and shape on a very narrow evergreen plant growing to about 6-8 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Plant in full to part sun.

Upright Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus h. ‘Fastigiata’) – A good selection for shady spots that need a vertical accent. Shiny, black-green, needle-like foliage is borne on vertical stems. Slow-growing to 8-10 feet tall and about 4-6 feet wide.

Photos courtesy of Christina Haney.

Tina Mast is communications director for Homewood Nursery & Garden Center in north Raleigh. She may be reached at 919-847-0117 or

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