It’s a Grumpy pet peeve—hiding your house behind a wall of overgrown bushes. Walking through my neighborhood, I often have a hard time seeing the actual dwellings huddled behind giant hollies, boxwoods, loropetalums, gardenias, and (barf) privets. And it raises questions in my mind.
Are the homeowners afraid of other people? Are they hiding illegal activity? Are they old and frail with no one to help them? Or are they slothful and prideless and just don’t care?
This sad state of affairs has its roots in the birth of suburbia and the rise of the concept called “foundation planting.” You couldn’t be happy with just a nice house sitting on a nice lot. No, you had to “anchor” it to the landscape with a girdle of shrubbery. This concept became so pervasive that’s it was written into many building codes. Builders usually comply by installing the cheapest, most nondescript shrubs they could find, like Japanese holly, nandina, and juniper.
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Foundation planting might make sense if you’re trying to hide an ugly foundation or complement the architecture of the home. However, this is almost never the case. I can’t count how many otherwise attractive homes I’ve seen that are swallowed by green blobs for no reason. And don’t even get me started on the “we planted for extra privacy” thing. There simply is no good reason to block the view from the window with evergreen bushes. Shutters, blinds, and drapes do that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another very practical reason why monstrous bushes shouldn’t be growing right up against the house. It greatly increases maintenance by holding moisture against the walls. Rotten wood, moss, mildew, termites, and frequent repainting are the results. You should always maintain an open buffer at least a foot wide between plants and walls to allow air to flow freely and surfaces to dry.
“But Grumpy,” you implore, “the bushes in front of my house are too big for me to move and I’m afraid if I cut them too much that they’ll die. What can I do?” Answer: either bite the bullet and hire landscapers to remove the behemoths or prune them down yourself to the proper size. Pruning them correctly will not kill them.
Here is a rule to follow when pruning back big shrubs. Almost all broadleaf evergreen shrubs – boxwood, holly, gardenia, camellia, azalea, loropetalum, nandina, pyracantha, abelia, oleander, cherry laurel, barberry – can be pruned back as far as you need to, even to bare wood, and they’ll sprout new foliage and grow back. It’s trickier with needleleaf evergreens, though. If you cut back a branch beyond its innermost foliage, it will likely die. So don’t do that. Just shorten the branch while leaving some needles.
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Go out this evening and look at your house. Are there any bushes you wish had never been planted? Any that block views or access? Any that make your plantings a jumbled mess? Any that give neighbors the impression that’s not really chili cooking in the basement? Get out your pruners and loppers.
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!