The Well-Dressed Garden

Plantings put your house in a natural and attractive context, defining and framing the scenery of your life. At their best, plants around your home complement the architecture, establish a mood and convey a certain style, without -- above all -- blocking the windows.

"When you say 'foundation plantings,' we all have a picture -- it's kind of Grandma's house," says Margie Grace, an award-winning landscape designer and owner of Grace Design Associates in Montecito, California. Straight lines of evergreens under the windows and upright shrubs or trees at the corners anchor a house solidly in the landscape; it's an old-fashioned style that harks back to a fading era. Today's foundation plantings are less predictable, more graceful and distinctly, sometimes dramatically, multidimensional and complex, "with depth and layering and play of light and color," Grace says.

When Grace designs foundation plantings for her clients, she considers the house as a backdrop, and the plantings as elements that, together, fit well against it. "Think 'art gallery,'" she says, like a curator striving to display works of art at their best. When you do, "suddenly you have opportunities to see form, texture, silhouette and shadow. You're always thinking in terms of good composition."

Grace's artistic approach to foundation planting doesn't mean she rips out every plant in a client's garden and starts from scratch. A front yard that is "messed up" by overgrown and ill-chosen plantings can be saved, she says, with imagination and careful editing.

"I always look physically at what is needed first," Grace says, so the existing trees, shrubs and other plants that are a problem can be removed at the beginning of a project. But instead of removing all the plants, she tries to identify the best specimens and keep them, if possible. "A lot of times, what we do is the botanical equivalent of a comb-over," she says. A magnificent tree may need pruning to enhance its sculptural form. Taking out a few existing shrubs is likely to give those that remain a more prominent role, while opening up opportunities to add fresh color, form, texture or fragrance.

Sometimes it is necessary to hide views of utility lines or screen out a basketball goal in a neighbor's driveway. To compensate for awkward level changes from the sidewalk to the house, for example, Grace might create a low terrace in between, installing handsome stone stairs to emphasize the ascent. She often repeats colors and forms within a design for coherence and continuity: The eye enjoys moving from one similar element to another.

In a spot by the house that's too small for a planting but too prominent to neglect, Grace likes to place one or more spectacular flower pots. The pots add height and depth, never outgrow their spaces, and put a particular focus on showy specimen plants. Remember, she says, your house is "a fabulous backdrop for forms and shapes."

In Southern California, environmental concerns are always a priority. Grace looks for plants that need little water once they are established and that survive bugs and blights. "We also like low-fuel things," she says, such as ornamental grasses, herbs and small shrubs that will burn off quickly in a fire without endangering a home. Trees are placed where they will shelter the house from sun and glare, "but not be a fuel ladder" for wildfires, she says.

Trees also "bring the birds to where you can see them," Grace says. "I want multi-function if I can get it -- fruit, habitat value, fragrance."

From inside a home, the view from the windows should be pleasing. "You have to be mindful of the openings," she says. "There's no point in planting something you have to prune every five minutes." In a small space, instead of a shrub that might outgrow its spot in a few years, she suggests building an attractive trellis for a vine. "You have the open tracery of the vine, the sculptural trellis, and then plant something tufty at the bottom," such as an ornamental grass, for textural contrast.

Poking around the internet looking at landscape designers' websites, design boards on Pinterest and theme pages on Houzz are all good places to shop for ideas, but don't neglect the cues your own home provides, Grace says. Study your home's architecture and let inspiration flow from its style. Stand back and think about it: Is your home traditional or modern? Is the architecture symmetrical or a bit offbeat? Are there strong vertical elements or long, horizontal lines? Good foundation plantings will add depth and dimension to the whole. At the same time, plantings can soften harsh architectural edges and help make graceful, interesting transitions between the house and rest of the garden.

"Your house is a big, clunky thing sitting there," Grace says, "it will look like a box on scraped land if you don't ground it." Well-chosen, well-placed, well-maintained plants change everything.

SOURCES

-- Margie Grace is the owner of Grace Design Associates in Montecito, California: gracedesignassociates.com and Grace Design Associates on houzz.com.

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