Saturday, June 1, 2024

Shrubs in the landscape

A newly renovated house in our neighborhood with its
newly-installed curb-appeal shrubs where there were none.

Shrubs as the default foundation plantings

Shrubs are easy for the builders to install and they give the landscape a "finished" and the expected look for a house.

Here's a house in our neighborhood that recently went on the market after extensive interior renovations according to its online listing. But what bothered me was that they removed two mature trees on the west side of the house, which cooled the area especially in the afternoon, removed the awnings on the windows, and then installed a row of useless, sprawling shrubs along the foundation. One of the trees may have been too close to the house, but the other one was fine. 

This was in 2022 when their azaleas were blooming. I was not
focused on the house, but the thickets.

I had taken a photo of this house in 2022 when their Japanese azaleas (Rhododendron japonicum), which are planted around some trees, were in bloom to include in my article, Habitat Gardening. The tree in the foreground is an old redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) next to the road, which is still there.

So the real problem with foundation shrubs is that they usually outgrow their spaces, some sooner than others. Sometimes it's just that they grow too tall, but other shrubs with aggressive spreading roots could also damage the building's foundation. 

Before and After

While some cosmetic updates were done, just getting rid of the overgrown shrubs changes the look of the house. Replacing the overgrown shrubs with grasses is a good move.

I'm not sure why, but my Facebook feed is filled with "Before and After" photos of renovation projects. For some, there are extensive changes to expand and update worn out buildings, but just as often, there are ones like these two examples with relatively minor structural changes, but with the removal of overgrown shrubs that had been planted as foundation plantings years ago. This opens up the view of the house. 

In 2005, the front porch garden in its
original configuration. Look how cute
the holly shrubs were. There were also sagos 
(Cycas revoluta) and gardenias (Gardenia sp.).

Our holly shrubs

Our house was two years old when we bought it in 2004 and the owner, who was also the builder, had installed the ubiquitous dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria 'Nana'), a male clone, as foundation shrubs.

As a foundation plant, it has a few drawbacks:
- While it grows slowly when first planted, it eventually grows faster and outgrows its space.
- It suckers, so the roots send up lots of new plants, which are often at some distance from the original plant. And, as we found out when trying to remove them, eventually, each shrub creates a solid mass of wood under the soil.
- It's a male holly, so it has no berries for the birds.
- When it's older, the center dies back if it's been trimmed.

Yaupon hollies are native to Central and North Florida, and from Virginia to Texas, Cuba, plus the Yucat√°n Peninsula. Like all hollies they are dioecious with male flowers and female flowers on separate plants. The ones with the female flowers bear the fruit, so this 'Nana' cultivar is male and has no fruit and since it's a cloned cultivar, it's not considered a true native but is a "nativar." 

The other unique characteristic of this shrub is that it is the only plant native to North America that produces caffeine. I covered this in my article, Why do plants produce caffeine.

In 2010...

In 2017, the shrubs have been trimmed to the height of the porch railing.

In 2018, we replaced the sago with wildflowers. You can see that the shrubs were trimmed to their
maximum size for the space and they needed trimming at least twice a year. 

In 2020, Dean trimmed them back to medium-sized balls.

In 2020, the centers of the hollies were dying back, so Dean tried to reshape the hollies by trimming them into balls, but after a couple of years, we made the decision to remove them entirely from the right side of the porch where it's sunnier. Since the shrubs were trimmed back there was a good stand of wildflowers and grasses in this bed. Some I'd transplanted from elsewhere in the yard but most had volunteered. Now, I'll have to start from scratch again since the removal of the shrubs disturbed most of the wild flowers as well.

Digging out the srubs was too much work for us, so we used the van to pull them out. Pulling them out still left a lot of work to dig out the roots, which were under the foundation and under the sidewalk. 

After pulling out the shrubs and their extensive roots, the whole bed looked like
 a wasteland.
After getting out all the roots, we added two loads of soil, evened it out, and finally topped the bed with a few inches of fresh arborist chips.

I have a couple large muhly grass clumps in areas that have
become too shady. I'll divide them and plant them
as shrub replacements.
This bed will just sit with its cover of arborist chips until fall. It's possible that some of the native wildflowers will come back even after this harsh treatment, but I'm not counting on that. I'll work again to encourage the wildflowers in the area, by both
- transplanting some from the lawn and other places around the yard, and
- ordering some wildflower seeds from the Florida Wildflowers Growers Cooperative to add more diversity to the mix. 

This fall, I will also plant five or six  evenly-spaced  bunches of muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) to provide some height and some structure. They will basically take the place of the shrubs and will not outgrow their space. Read my muhly grass article for more details and photos.

More sustainable uses of shrubs

Where are the shrubs? NOT planted next
to the house. A Step-by-Step Guide to a Florida Native Yard.
Plant shrubs around single trees in the landscape to create better habitat for the tree, the birds & pollinators.
A Florida hedgerow is planted with various shrubs or small trees
that are planted far enough apart so that each one can grow into 
its own shape. The oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
provides seasonal interest in late spring in North Florida.

- Plant native shrubs where they can grow to their natural shapes and sizes. Use as a screen to block sight, noise, and dust as a hedgerow with different species planted together to provide habitat, and seasonal interest. This type of arrangement also provides better resilience than a single-species hedge.

- Plant shrubs in the transition between wooded areas and meadows or lawns to increase habitat for a wide variety of birds and protection for pollinators. 

- As illustrated in Marjorie's excellent drawing, use shrubs and other plants as companion plants for lone trees planted in the middle of the lawn. 

So it's time to rethink the shrubs, native or nonnative, as the default foundation plantings in order to have a more sustainable landscape into the future.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

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