Let’s ban the green meatballs

Fatsia used as a foundation plant.


By Kit Flynn

Recently, I was perusing “Spike Plants,” a garden book by the English landscape designer Christopher Holliday, a book that has long been in my collection. It caused me to start thinking about the prevalence of “green meatballs” we all have in our gardens. Now, “green meatballs” is not my term: It belongs to Tony Avent in reference to those round balls we all plant, especially as foundation plants next to the house. I realize I verge on shrillness when I holler, “Diversity! Diversity!” – but there really is a reason behind this cry.

So many plants we favor in our gardens are basically round plants of little interest, such as azaleas and boxwoods. Now there is nothing singularly wrong with these plants except that we tend to establish rows of them, thereby creating a blur in our eyes’ range of vision. We see one boxwood if it’s lucky enough to stand alone; our eyes don’t see the individual boxwoods when they are situated all in a line. The same pertains to azaleas when they aren’t in bloom – who looks at them?

We appear to have a fetish for planting boring evergreens, shaped into meatballs by a hedge clipper, to hide the house foundation, that area where the house meets the ground. If these plants with no apparent identities were people, they would be the last ones you would invite to grace your dining room table. We can – and should – do better than this.

Thirty-two years ago, when I moved to Chapel Hill, I knew little about gardening and garden design. I planted the infamous two long rows of azaleas and lots of English boxwoods. The house already had foundation plants consisting of hollies. All in all, I managed to create a boring, stereotypical garden that failed to draw any admiring glances. Everything was basically the same shape. The magenta azalea blooms were blinding, while the English boxwoods didn’t like the ice storms that plagued us at the turn of the century – and there was little to recommend in a damaged boxwood as they bear their scars seemingly forever.

“Spike Gardens” managed to get me out of my meatball rut. I slowly came to the realization that I needed contrasting shapes if the garden were to hold any eye interest. Basically, Holliday taught me that different shapes caused my eye to stop so I could effectively view the garden scene. Flowers, of course, help, but flowers are transitory while it’s the shapes that remain.

Consequently, I began to look for spikey plants when I was at the nurseries. The first question you must ask yourself when you start out on the spiked plant adventure is whether you want those plants that can blend in with your other plants or should you select those plants that demand to be set apart because of their unique characteristics.

I started out by acquiring some agaves. Now, agaves need a distinctive setting as they are conducive neither to settling into the confines of a cottage-style of garden nor dwelling in a perennial border; instead, they need to be placed as though they were sitting for a portrait. Another problem with agaves is that they are among the last plants you want to trip and fall on – these are not comfortable plants. I quickly discovered that I didn’t appreciate plants that could practically decapitate me should I lose my balance.

Fortunately, there are spikey plants lacking barbs and thistles. Ornamental grasses spread throughout the garden work beautifully – and they come in all sizes. Cannas grow well here; this is where you can add a multitude of short plants to show them off. Just keep your eyes on the cannas as they can spread via rhizomes; the good news about rhizomes is that they are close to the surface so you can pull out the invading cannas easily.

Like ornamental grasses that also hold no attraction to deer, crinums add a spikey texture to the garden. Crinums come in different sizes and require very little maintenance. As with any bulbs, leave the foliage on until it withers away in the winter. Small ones can handle membership in the perennial border, whereas the large ones, such as ‘Super Ellen’, demand their own personal space.

We are fortunate in that we can grow palms here. One of the most effective foundation plantings I have ever seen occurs at a large house on Franklin Street whose owners planted Sabal minor along the foundation. Now Sabal minor is a relatively small palm that has a wonderful irregular shape. A row of S. minor is effective because the plants have an asymmetrical silhouette so the eye can distinguish each plant clearly.

This use of S. Minor indicates that foundation plants can be interesting, whereas green meatballs will never achieve that. Not interested in spikey plants? You still have some alternatives to green meatballs. Shrub roses, such as ‘Spice’, work well as foundation plants. Check out other Earth-Kind rose suggestions here. Gardenias remain handsome year-round. Hybridizers are now producing shorter plants from species that we associate with a large size, so there are spireas and viburnums that could work. I am particularly fond of fatsias as foundation plants. Do your research – it’s what the Internet is for.

Just avoid the meatballs in the garden. After all, meatballs pair better with spaghetti than they do with the garden.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at howyourgardengrows@icloud.com.

This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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