Why hide a nice house behind a green curtain?


Judy and I like to walk through our Alabama neighborhood on comfortable mornings to see what people are doing. Mostly, we say nice things like, "Wow, that new front door looks great" or "That lawn could be sold by a carpet store." Invariably, though, we encounter a house like the one above and Grumpy's hackles rise. "Wonder what they're hiding behind those bushes?" I ask. "An old lady in a rocking chair? D.B. Cooper? Amelia Earhart's plane?"

Much as I am tempted to snoop around the yard or peer through the front door window, I resist, lest the neighbors suspect I'm a porch pirate and call the cops. It's more likely that another innocent house has fallen victim to foundation planting.

House Hidden By Trees and Bushes
Credit: Steve Bender

"Foundation planting" is the revered practice of plopping down an evergreen shrub or tree at three-foot intervals along the foundations of a newly built house. Local building codes often require this before a new house can be sold. Therefore, builders usually stick in the cheapest and fastest growing evergreens they can find and hightail it out of there before the owners figure out what a mess they have.

Apart from building codes, two primary rationales are cited for foundation planting. The first is aesthetic. The house must be "settled into the landscape," it says. Right – and girdling it with azaleas, camellias, and hollies from China and Japan totally accomplishes this. (Being sarcastic here.) The second is the desire to fit in. If every house on the street has hollies, chances are yours will too.

The biggest problem with planting trees and shrubs around a house is that, unless they die, they grow. And unless you prune them every year, they inevitable get too big for the space. They block windows, doorways, steps, and walks, which defeats the purpose of even having these things.

People consider pruning an annoying chore and do as little as they can. So each year, plants are pruned a little less and steadily grow bigger and bigger and bigger. Seemingly overnight, that nice house you bought with little bushes out front turns into giant bushes with a little house in back.

Were this house yours, what would you do? I know what I'd do.

  • Hire a landscape company to rip out everything by the roots and start over. Remedial pruning can't fix this disaster.
  • Seek planting advice from a garden designer or landscape architect.
  • Find out the mature sizes of everything to be planted.
  • Favor shrubs that grow slowly and need little pruning.
  • Leave enough space between plants so they wouldn't crowd each other out.
  • Never plant anything destined to block a window, porch, or walk.
  • Plant far enough from the house so there would be at least a 2 to 3-foot gap between foliage and the house to permit good air circulation and avoid moisture problems.
  • Plan for how I want things to look 5 and 10 years from now, not just next month.

I'm not here to shame anybody. When we bought our house about 25 years ago, I planted little, two-gallon ‘George Tabor' azaleas in front. You know, to settle it into the landscape. I gave no thought to the fact that these azaleas grow more than 10 feet tall. I've been pruning the heck out of them every year for the last 15 years and hate it.

I should just let them grow into massive blobs. Then I'll stick a sign out front. "See Amelia's Plane."