Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Plans and Dreams #1 - The Front Foundation

Part of the front foundation planting today. The plant in the upper right corner is a camellia, planted too close to the house, but otherwise quite nice. The slightly bushy green mound in front of it is an aquilegia and there's a lonicera sempervivens next to the stairs. There's some ajuga too and a lot of self-sown calendula officinalis seedlings that will die this winter, but as you can see, a lot of bare ground and not much in the way of shrubbery.
Are all gardeners dreamers? I know that I am.

I can't help looking at a catalog or a nursery website and imagining how many of the beautiful plants therein would look in my landscape.

This autumn, I'm taking the next step in trying to implement some of those plans and dreams in my front foundation bed.

When we bought the house in spring 2011, this east-facing bed was dominated by a multitude of small bland boxwoods, three large Nellie Stevens hollies and a thick carpet of Liriope. (I'm not sure which kind, but I believe it was Liriope muscari.)

In my not-so-infinite wisdom, we ripped out almost all these plants. I didn't want the prickly hollies (one of which was way too big for its location and threatening to give the squirrels a stepping-stone to the roof), the blah boxwoods or the tattered, brown rampant liriope.

So we got rid of almost everything in the front border, keeping only five azaleas and three camellias. I like plants that have flowers.

That left us with lots of bare space. Bare space, as any gardener knows, is an invitation to weeds.

I didn't want that, so I tried to fill in the space with mail-order shrubs, perennials and annuals.

Fast forward six months to today: The tiny shrubs that arrived in the mail either died or didn't grow much. Some of the perennials thrived (Ajuga, Hardy Blue Plumbago, Sweet Woodruff, Lonicera sempervivens), others died (Smilacina racemosa) or barely hung on (Clematis integrifolia). The annuals have mostly run their course. Sweet alyssum is still blooming and the English marigolds are on their second generation now, but that will all be over soon.

And it will be back to lots of bare ground and an exposed foundation, which is a big faux-pas in this neighborhood.

Another portion of the foundation planting. That's another too-close-to-the-stairs camellia on the left and a newly-planted gardenia in the middle. There are some tiny aronia (chokeberries) in the picture too and a lot of bare ground.
So I'm trying to fill in the space and create the front foundation of my dreams. I've put in a few more perennials - more Ajuga, a balloon flower, some divided Blue Star Creeper, three transplanted hardy Rozanne geraniums - but I knew that I needed something larger with more presence and impact. We have a large two-story house. Rozanne geraniums weren't quite on a scale to get noticed from the street or even a casual visitor.

The first step I took was to buy a gardenia. We had taken a garden tour in the spring and both my wife and I were intoxicated by the scent of gardenias. So I took a chance. It was a good price and a good size. I've since read that gardenias are very temperamental and hard to keep alive, so we'll see how that goes. Some leaves have yellowed, but overall a couple months later it's looking alright. (I know we're also at the northern edge of the gardenia hardiness zone, but since this one is planted close to the house, I'm hoping it will be alright.)

I contemplated hiring a landscaper to overhaul the front border, but (foolishly?) have decided that I'll give it a shot myself for reasons of money, time and the sheer pleasure that comes from putting a plant in the ground oneself and seeing it grow. So I did a lot of research, made a trip to the nursery this past weekend and here's what I ended up buying:

- Hydrangea quercifolia, Oakleaf hydrangea, "Snowflake" - Native, beautiful fall color, nice foliage, supposed to have a beautiful long bloom season, supposed to need less water than most hydrangeas.

Oakleaf hydrangea, photo by Chiot's Run

- Fothergilla gardenii - native, supposed to have nice foliage, nice fragrant spring flowers and good fall color

Close-up on fothergilla gardenii fall foliage, by jacki-dee

- Aucuba japonica "Variegata", Gold-Dust Plant - evergreen grower for shady spots. Marvelous foliage. (I didn't realize, but according to RHS, 'Variegata' is actually a female cultivar that can produce berries if a male clone is nearby. I think the berries are poisonous to humans, but attractive to birds. Not sure where to find such a male plant (and not sure I have enough shade for two aucubas on my pretty sunny property) but I will investigate.

Aucuba japonica "Variegata". As you can see, the plant has the potential to grow quite large. Dave's Garden says as much as 8-10 feet tall by 4-6 feet wide. Photo by maggie_and_her_camera.

- Several crape myrtles - Geronimo (red flowers, 12-feet high x 8-feet wide), Tonto (red flowers, 8-feet high and wide) and Petite Snow (white flowers, dwarf, 5-feet high x 4-feet wide). Most people in our community place evergreens at the corners of their house. This is considered right and proper and sensible. But I've never had a hankering for evergreens like junipers or cedars. I like flowers. I like the bees that visit flowers. And I've been delighted so far with the other crape myrtles on our property - five Natchez crapes in the back border and two crapes on north side of the house (didn't plant them so I can't be sure, but I think one in Muskogee with lovely lavender blooms). I've been impressed with the crape myrtles' toughness and I needed something that would be able to survive the high winds that whip around our hilltop property. My plan is to put the two red crapes in the front east-facing border of the house, one on each corner. I doubt they'll do quite as well as the crapes in the back because they won't have as much sun - and crapes love sun. The smaller white crape myrtle, I plan to put next to the driveway on the back of the house near the recently-planted Chaste Tree. I didn't want a crape that would compete with the Chaste Tree and create an overcrowding situation, so hopefully a 5-foot tall crape will fit just perfectly there.

'Tonto' crape myrtle, photo via U.S. National Arboretum

- Ilex glabra, Inkberry Holly, "Nigra" - I mentioned above that I didn't like the Nellie Stevens holly, so why would I rip those out and plant some other hollies in their place. Well, all hollies are not alike. (This may be self-evidence to some gardeners, but it was a surprise to a relative novice like myself.) I may have scoffed at the orthodoxy in our area that says foundation plantings should be dominated by evergreens, but I recognize the virtues of having some green in the winter landscape. These evergreen hollies fit that bill, but they're not prickly like so many of the hollies. They're supposed to be very tough, a trait that I prize in any plant. And Ilex glabra should also stay a manageable size - the species may grow up to 8-feet tall, but the Nigra cultivar should max out around 4-6 feet. Like other hollies, Ilex glabra is dioecious, meaning that both male and female plants are needed to produce black berries (not the typical red berries found on most hollies). Birds supposedly like the berries but unfortunately, since most humans grow Ilex glabra for its foliage and not its berries, growers apparently generally do not bother to sex the plants. I bought three Ilex glabra and hope that I'll have a mix of males and females so that I get at least some berries for the birds. Slow Food USA notes that nectar from the plants - which are also known as Gallberry plants - is used by beekeepers in Florida and Georgia to produce a prized honey.

Ilex glabra, Inkberry Holly flowers with (I think) a bee, photo by Elsa Spezio

- Sasanqua camellias, Kanjiro and Pink-a-Boo - I've been really happy with the three camellias we have in the front foundation. Two of them are blooming right now and even when they are not blooming, the dark green foliage is attractive and (usually) healthy. They seem happier since I scattered some acidic fertilizer beneath them this past autumn - two of the bushes that didn't bloom at all last year bloomed heavily this time and the other one, which I guess blooms later in the year, is covered with buds. I love flowers, so I tend to try to find floriferous plants with long bloom seasons, but there are not too many plants (as far as I know) that will keep flowering in cold Middle Tennessee winters. Camellias offer a beautiful splash of color in the landscape, so I'm hoping these two new additions will thrive and join the tree existing camellias to create a really nice tapestry of winter blooms. Pink-a-Boo in particular seemed popular with bees at the nursery even on an early November day, so I'm hoping that adding these plants to my landscape will also provide more food for pollinators.

Camellia sasanqua (probably) 'Kanjiro' with bee, photo by Greenstone Girl

That's about it. I did buy one other perennial plant, but it's for the border at the back of the house so I'll cover it separately in another post.

Including delivery (scheduled for tomorrow) and with a seasonal 25% discount on the three crape myrtle trees, I spent a bit less than $500 on all these plants. I could have certainly spent less money had I bought smaller plants, but with a chance that we'll put our house on the market in a couple of years, I thought it made sense to buy larger plants so that the landscape looks more mature, even if they are also more work to plant up front. The Aucuba, Fothergilla and Ilex glabra all came in 3-gallon containers. The Hydrangea, both Camellias and two of the crape myrtles are 5-gallon size, and one of the crapes comes in a 7-gallon container.

Dear Readers: I would be honored to hear your thoughts as to the worthiness of my plant selections and the price I paid. Of course, if anyone has grown these plants themselves, I would be eager to hear about your experiences and/or receive your advice on planting and caring for them.

What will happen to the front foundation (and the rest of the garden)? Find out with free email updates.


  1. Aaron, prices would be moot if you wound up selling the house to someone who wanted to re-design and would let you dig the plants for your next home. Even if that didn't happen, your prices are right, as plants you love really are priceless. Enjoy! Especially that gardenia.

    1. Thanks for your advice, Lee.

      You have a good point. I hope that a future buyer would like these plants, but it's worth asking during the sale process because, if not, I'd rather take a lot of these plants with me than have them shovel-pruned.

      I agree that great plants are priceless! (But unfortunately the nursery still insisted on having me pay for them...) ;-)

  2. I am a big fan of oakleaf hydrangeas and fothergilla. Acuba are nice but they get that black slimy fungus if they are stressed....keep it happy. If you want some small crepe myrtles....Chickasaw or Pokomoke are minis. Think they get at max about 3 feet tall and wide.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Janet.

      Hm. Black slimy fungus sounds Bad. I'll have to look out for that and try to make sure they don't get stressed.

      How does one prevent aucuba stress? Massages? Play classical music? (Or just make sure they don't get dried out in hot weather?)

      Thanks for the advice on the crapes.

  3. Big thumbs up for the oak leaf hydrangea and fothergilla. Not familiar with your other choices. I definitely understand the impulse to spend a little more to get a head start on filling in a border.

    1. Thanks for the endorsements of two of my choices, Jason :)

      Stay tuned and hopefully I'll be able to share photos and news of the other plant picks that will help you to become familiar with them too :)

      As for the cost of filling in the border quickly, I'm comfortable with it. I tried the cheap route of buying tiny plants and praying for them to grow. Did not work out all that well.

      That said, folks should know that there is probably a middle route of buying 1-gallon or 2-gallon plants that would allow them to get these same plants in a smaller size for perhaps half or two-thirds the price that I paid.

  4. Love love love Oakleaf Hydrangeas! They grow relatively quickly too. I had an Aucuba once, it grew so fast in complete dry shade, but we had to take it out eventually due to it breaking badly in an ice storm. Never had black slime on it though. I think you made some excellent choices for your climate and region, don't forget the fertilizer (I like Espoma Organics) since the soil around your house is probably stressed from construction (I'm guessing a relatively newly built house?). Also, don't forget to keep them from drying out after you plant them, even in the winter. Winter drought stress on newly planted plants is one of the number one killers we tend to overlook.

    1. Thank you, Julie! I'm really excited about the oakleaf hydrangea, particularly with your endorsement.

      Hm. We do get ice here from time to time. I don't know how I could protect the aucuba from that. It will be right next to the house in a sheltered location, so perhaps that will help. Or should I stand out there with a hair dryer melting the ice if necessary ;-)

      The house was built around 2006. We did do some soil tests near the house earlier this year and I don't think it is nutrient deficient. My plan is probably to wait until spring and then to use a balanced fertilizer like Espoma or perhaps some chicken manure.

      And yes, thanks for the reminder. I do plan to water. That said, I'm guessing it's important not to OVER water too. We have a lot of clay in our soil here and I wouldn't want to rot the roots. Like a lot of gardening, I guess it's a balancing act! :P


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