Tropical Gardening: Plants for your home foundation

  • Photo courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE

    Foundation plantings of monstera, anthurium and cordyline make a transition from an asphalt drive to this remodeled barn/home. The design incorporates features of Hawaii and the Caribbean.

Foundation plantings are like spandex garments.

They smooth out bumpy features and add a dressy look.


When properly used, a foundation planting serves definite purposes. It connects the structure with the grounds and adjacent ornamentals so the building and grounds appear to have grown together into an eye appealing design. Shrubs and vines also tend to soften and blend architectural lines. Such plants give the home a finished look.

Generally, foundation plantings reflect personal preferences. The owner of a Spanish villa type home will use agave, yucca, colored plants such as acalyphas, and crotons. The proud owner of a Polynesian type home might feature palms, fruits and flowering trees.

Rules for making foundation plantings are vague.

Ancient cultures might have cut out the underbrush so they could keep an eye out for the enemy attacks. Conditions haven’t changed much. Some gardeners plant low-growing plants that allow for good visibility so they can keep an eye out for peddlers, bill collectors and unwanted visitors.

Today we tend to consider the ecological advantages of plantings as well, so a guideline for landscaping is “the more the better” since plants are the lungs of the planet. They supply oxygen, sequester carbon and in general cool the garden.

Here are some don’ts in making foundation plantings.

Don’t depend too much on annuals as a basis for the planting. They require continuous replacement, and during some seasons will not do justice to your mortgage.

Don’t use overly large or excessively conspicuous materials. Large trees can be used only against the largest buildings, and some of the brightly colored foliage plants do not fit well with all types of architecture.

Don’t fail to plant some sort of foundation planting if there is a bare spot at the base of your building. Remember, these plants can enhance the value of the property.

However, don’t be afraid of your own ideas regarding plants. Your enthusiasm should not be dampened by the don’ts. You can get away with almost anything if you have a good reason.

There are scores of plants suitable for around the home. The green or colored ti is one group. Larger growing foundation suggestions include carissa, hibiscus, jasmines, pittosporum, crotons, nandina and many others.

Still another group of plants, ferns, have a place against shaded walls and underneath larger plants. The sword, Boston and leather leaf ferns and other cultivated varieties make excellent foundation arrangements.

At the base of the higher plants and to add color, plant herbaceous perennials such as impatiens, four-o-clocks, penstemon, gerberas, oyster plant, pothas, and Australian violets.

Besides the visual aspects of foundation plantings, consider fragrance.

There’s a special magic in a Hawaii garden. Even in the small lot or lanai, the scent of flowers perfumes the air and sets a tropical, romantic mood. By adding more fragrant flowering plants to your area, you can combat the increasing urban smells such as car exhaust fumes.

Here are a few of many that are ideal for home use.

The fragrance of the gardenia is well known. Not so well known is the best way to grow the plant.

Place it in full sun or partial shade, never in heavy shade. Plant in soil mixed with at least an equal amount of peat moss or other decomposed organic matter. Gardenias prefer an acidic soil. Mulch with 1 or 2 inches of organic matter. Keep soil moist. Feed every three or four months with acid-type fertilizer.

For hot, beach areas, the Tahitian gardenia is much better adapted.

Jasminum species, are also ideal for fragrance. There are many kinds of jasmine as well as several other plants called by that name, including star jasmine and orange jasmine that are not jasmines at all.

There are several true jasmines that bloom with fragrant flowers. Jasminum sambac, or pikake; Jasminum ilicifolium and Jasminum multiflorum are three shrubs used as foundation plantings. They also can be grown as vines and will bloom more profusely.

Star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides, is a viny shrub. Tie this plant to a post, fence or some other support and it will climb. Pinch out branch tips and it will become a prostrate bush. The clusters of star-shaped, white flowers contrast nicely with shiny dark green leaves. This plant is a very attractive ground cover, as well.

Orange jasmine, Murraya paniculata, is a member of the citrus family and an attractive evergreen shrub or small tree, with glossy green pinnately compound leaves. The white, very fragrant flowers are produced at intervals throughout the year, followed by clusters of red ovoid fruit. It is a vigorous grower and can be used as a small tree, an informal high hedge or screen, or can be trimmed to a formal shape.

Night blooming jasmine, Cestrum nocturnum, produces flowers with a powerful scent. A single plant per garden should be plenty. These evergreen shrubs grow 6 to 10 feet tall or higher and bloom off and on throughout the year. The fragrance is a bit overpowering, so planting next to the bedroom might be too much of a good thing.


Also try alahe‘e, Canthium odoratum, a native shrub with jasmine-like fragrance. It is actually in the gardenia family and is excellent as a foundation or hedge plant. It is available in some nurseries specializing in Hawaiian plants.

For an excellent reference in gardening, check out Sunset’s “New Western Garden Book” that is available at garden shops. You also can call the Master Gardener Helpline in Kona at 322-4893 or Hilo at 981-5199.

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