Space-Saving Shrubs for Foundation and Front-Path Plantings

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Winter and early spring are good times to assess and address a home’s curb appeal. What’s going right or wrong in the planted areas immediately adjacent to the house’s foundation and main walkways? The foundation bed needs shrubs that won't grow tall and obscure the home’s windows, nor so wide that they crowd out companions. Even smaller shrubs suit the very front of the foundation bed, adding depth. These can also line the edge of the front walkway or the space between sidewalk and street. But not all shrubs for the front yard need be small. The corner of the house, the doorstep, the lamppost or gate can pair with accent shrubs that grow tall and skinny.

Tiny Tuff Stuff is a mountain hydrangea that grows just two feet tall. Image courtesy of Proven Winners. 

Tiny Tuff Stuff is a mountain hydrangea that grows just two feet tall. Image courtesy of Proven Winners. 

Beneath Windows

Rhododendrons, common yews and Japansese pieris planted at the foundation 15 or 20 years ago likely block the windows of the home today and leave little space for planting anything else nearby. Recent introductions suit the space beneath windows much better, while still offering eye-catching color from flowers or foliage. 

For year-round color in partial sun to full shade, look at Golden Duchess eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘MonKinn’; USDA Zones 4–7). Golden-yellow needles cover its compact frame all year. It matures to just four feet tall and five feet wide, with arching branches that create a mounded form. Its circumference makes it a particularly good choice in foundation beds where only a simple single row of shrubs is desired. 

For a similarly sized deciduous shrub, see Little Joker ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Hoogi021’; Zones 4–8). This spring- to summer-flowering beauty remains just four feet tall and wide. It has rich reddish-purple foliage touted for its resistance to mildew. Full sun will prompt the best foliage color, but this selection will look lovely and bloom in part sun, too.   

A final wide option for the foundation can be found in Velvet Viking Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘MonFrick’; Zones 4–8). This hardy Minnesota-bred variety’s boasts a mounding, weeping shape that fills a space five feet wide. Meanwhile it grows just three feet tall. Its lacy burgundy foliage provides color spring through fall, then reveals an elegant architecture when it drops away for winter.

Short shrubs with a round shape make it possible to grow a greater number of plants within the confines of the foundation strip. Small, summer-blooming shrubs can be dotted throughout the space to provide bright seasonal color. To this end, certain hydrangeas have been bred to stay compact and require little maintenance. For instance, the Tuff Stuff series of the very hardy mountain hydrangea (H. serrata) blooms on both old and new wood, creating a long, foolproof flowering season for Zones 5 through 9. Tuff Stuff varieties grow no more than three feet tall and wide.

Along the Path

A pathside planting may need to be shorter than three feet. There are shrubby options that fit this bill and can serve as edging for a deeper bed, too. Circling back to the Lo & Behold butterfly bushes and Tuff Stuff hydrangeas mentioned earlier, we can find two diminutive relations: the non-invasive dwarf butterfly bush Buddleia ‘Pink Micro Chip’ grows just 18 to 24 inches tall, as does the smallest Tuff Stuff hydrangea, Tiny Tuff Stuff. 

For an evergreen edger, try the adorable Tater Tot arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smntobab’; Zones 3–7). It naturally grows as a 12- to 24-inch ball of dense green foliage in full sun to part shade. No pruning or shearing is required to keep it tidy, so a row of these makes a truly low-maintenance step-over hedge.

Upright Accents

While most spaces adjacent to a foundation or front path demand lower growers, certain spots benefit from a taller tree or shrub. Often, the corners of the house, the doorstep and the start of the walkway benefit from an upright marker.

The sun-loving Pillar series of rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus; Zones 5–9) fits the bill. Purple Pillar (‘Gandini Santiago’) and White Pillar (‘Gandini van Aart’) can reach 10 to 16 feet tall, but they remain just 2 to 3 feet wide. Fine Line buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula ‘Ron Williams’; Zones 2–7) has a similar width, but attains a height of seven feet. (This variety has a low seed set, so it won’t spread like older buckthorns.)

Sky Pencil holly and Green Tower boxwood have been popular choices for “exclamation marks” in these areas of the landscape, but for something different, there's Tiny Tower dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. conica 'MonRon'). It grows six feet tall and two feet wide, with gray-green needles that bring elegant cool color to a tight space.