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All hemmed in

Decorative hedges around a home's foundation often take on the appearance of a fortress-like wall. How did such a constricting landscape element become de rigueur in American neighborhoods?

February 07, 2008|Emily Green | Special to The Times

Among those emboldened to unbutton their homes, some might want to leave a clean corridor around the house and plant farther out on the property, perhaps where the lawn used to be. But for those who still want a gentle transition from lawn to house, Johnson sees ripping out the old foundation planting as an opportunity to bring in a more varied and poetic mix of trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers.

Here in Los Angeles, from her firm Artecho Architecture & Landscape Architecture, Palmer wonders if the habit of pushing shrubs up against the house isn't linked to the expectation that most of the front garden will be a display of lawn. Moving the hedges, she says, would entail rethinking the lawn.

She'd like us to look carefully at our homes, allow ourselves to dream what we'd like from every angle, including the living room. (Most front hedges can be seen only from the street.) Then she'd like us to think in terms of "layers of privacy."

Staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden feel so strongly about rethinking foundation planting that they are offering a public course in it. Nothing like that is on the agenda at Southern California public gardens, but one of the best public sources for alternative ideas for foundation planting is the downtown Central Library's landscaping collection in the architecture section. Give yourself plenty of time to settle in and read. The librarians are inspiring, and it's a fabulous collection.

For those who take on the project of loosening the chokehold of uniform shrubbery around their homes, Johnson has this quietly compelling promise from Chicago:

"It will make you feel better when you come home."



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Life beyond the hedge

PERHAPS it's time to take a close look at the ring of plants hugging your house. Here are tips and notes from some pros about foundation planting:

Drainage: Check the grade around the foundation to make sure rainwater is not flowing into the foundation. If the soil line has settled with drainage toward the house, remove old plants and correct the grade.

Watch the line: Do not let a soil or mulch line come above a stucco drainage point or clapboard. Keep the foundation area clear of organic plant matter, which will attract termites. Consider covering the immediate perimeter with gravel or stone.

Clearance: If planting near a house, leave at least two feet between the wall and plants. Check a plant's drought and shade tolerance.

Watch those roots: Be careful not to choose plants with invasive root structures.

Careful with the water: Do not run irrigation around the base of the house.

Freeing the house: Consider leaving the immediate perimeter of the house clear and moving the planting beds into the main body of the garden. The plants will still frame the house from the street but will be enjoyable from inside the house too.

Mix it up: Instead of employing one type of shrub, consider a mix of trees, shrubs and perennial flowers.

Upkeep: Consider if you want the cost or formality of the heavily pruned geometric shapes typical of many foundation hedges.

Be height-wise: If landscaping beneath windows, be aware of plants' growth rate and their eventual height.

-- Emily Green

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