A Different Kind of Foundation Planting? Yew Bet!

The Ostrich Bed is what I call the area that is immediately in front of our living room windows. The windows face North towards the street. When we moved to this house ten years ago, this part of the yard was simply a foundation planting of tormented Japanese Yews (Taxus cuspidata). The yews were suffering  because they were forced to stay just 3′ tall, whereas they yearned to grow out and up to 15′ or more, as their sister in the backyard has done.

The Ostrich Bed, with Ostrich Fern, Bleeding Heart, and Golden Alexander in May.

I put the yews out of their misery. I just kept cutting back stems until all that remained were the thick and gnarled trunks. Then I got out my pruning saw and cut the trunks off at ground level. I didn’t try to dig out the roots. I’ve done that before, and it requires a very strenuous effort if you are using only hand tools. This was at an earlier house we lived in, where I also did away with the the foundation planting of Japanese Yews. Digging them out is unnecessary: I’ve never seen these plants grow back from the roots.

I sometimes wonder if I could become a kind of Johnny Appleseed in reverse for Japanese Yews (Johnny Yew Stump?), traveling from place to place and yanking out foundation plantings instead of planting orchards.

But I digress. In front of the Yews there was a shelf of grass that extended a few feet before sloping down sharply about two feet to the main part of the front yard. I dug out the grass and, using flagstones from an old patio, built a low retaining wall in front of the slope, then filled in the gap with topsoil.

You can see the retaining wall in this picture. A front yard path between other front yard flower beds leads to the Ostrich Bed.

Then came the plants. Along the front of the house I planted ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), who dominate this bed for much of the Spring and Summer and inspired the nickname. These are wonderful plants, in their second year they were already over three feet high, and I’m hopeful that they will eventually reach their majestic potential height of six feet. This would be tall enough to be imposing but not tall enough to block the view from the windows, as our first floor is a couple feet above ground level.

Wild Columbine blooms in the Ostrich Bed in May.

In front of the Ostrich ferns are a mix of columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), old fashioned Bleeding Hearts (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), and Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) for Spring bloom. There are also Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) for early summer. Daffodils and daylilies (Hemerocalis ‘Aye-yi-yi’) are planted along the edge of the retaining wall (the area of this bed that gets the most sun). I also let a couple of Short’s Aster (Symphyotrichum shortii) and Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) seed in here and there for fall color.

Daylily ‘Aye-yi-yi’ flowers on the sunnier edge of the Ostrich bed.

I like my Ostrich Bed, but I’m not completely satisfied. First off, I planted Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ along the concrete landing on the west end of the bed. I think they want a more acidic soil and aren’t very happy. Didn’t bloom at all this year, and last year bloomed very sparsely. I’ve been thinking of replacing them with American Spikenard (Aralia racemosa). White flower spikes in summer, berries for the birds in fall, likes shade, big but not too big – why  not?

Also, I would really like to get rid of the old  Bridalwreath Spirea (Spirea vanhoutei) on the east end of the bed. I would replace them either with Serviceberry (Amelanchier) or Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia).

The Ostrich Bed in November. You can see the Clethra and Bridalwreath at either end.

So what do you think? Dump the Clethra and the Bridalwreath? Bring on the Spikenard and Serviceberry? The ostriches are waiting.

31 Comments on “A Different Kind of Foundation Planting? Yew Bet!

  1. First off…I LOVE Ostrich Ferns…I’m constantly trying to figure out what I need to move so I can find a spot for one (or three)! I say, go for it. If those other plants aren’t happy anyway (or you are just tired of them), change it up!

  2. My favourite fern is Matteuccia struthiopteris which grows in our bog garden, only ever reaches 4ft tall however, I like that you’ve created a garden around them.
    If you’re fed up with a plant , then get the saw out, its your garden and you have to be happy with it.

      • Yes, we planted Osmunda regalis in the ditch between the back garden and the woodland strip as they like water. Two years ago, we had a very cold few days in the winter, -15, thats cold for us, and we seemed to have lost it. However this summer, up came 2 tiny fronds, so all is not lost!!

  3. Ditto. LOVE the Ostrich Ferns. I hadn’t thought of ferns as foundation plantings but it’s an inspired idea, especially when they look so terrific. I hate giving up on plants too, but maybe you could find another spot for the Clethra and Spirea to make way for the replacement troops.

    • That might work for the Clethra, I’ll think about it. The spirea are just too old and massive. I like the way the ferns have worked out here, but of course they die back in winter, which would make them unacceptable for many people.

  4. I’m so envious of your ability to grow things like Ostrich ferns, I could never keep them alive here. I think your beds looks fantastic as is, but I can understand why you’d like to get rid of the spirea. You definitely can’t go wrong with Serviceberries for ease of care, beauty, and wildlife value. I’m guessing you might be able to spy on the birds as they eat the berries from inside those windows, which would be a treat. A nice multi-trunked Serviceberry would look great anchoring that corner.

  5. Your gardening choices are similar to mine, 🙂
    It appears you like things full and somewhat unstructured looking, but beneath that “natural” look lies a well conceived space—I really love the expanse of columbine!

    • You’re right, I like a really full look and hate to see exposed earth in the garden. Columbine is a favorite, makes me think of chandeliers.

  6. Thanks for commenting in my post for GBBD. That growth on your ferns patch is just like our volunteer fern growths at the back of our kitchen facing the elevated ground. It looks like a tropical growth. But in our case they die back during our dry season and resurrect again when the heavy rains come. I love the healthy growth in your garden most specially that columbine.

    • Our ferns die back as well in winter. But during the growing season – to me they look pre-historic. I tell the neighbor kids that when they get a little bigger they will attract dinosaurs.

  7. You are brave to shift and move things around to your liking. I always feel so guilty digging things out–even when I know I should. I love Ostrich Ferns, and my garden is full of them, too. Let’s see…the Aralia seems like a good bet, but I’m a fan of the Spirea. But I’m sure whatever you choose to do will be fantastic.

    • I don’t have any Aralia and I like trying new plants. I think I’m just tired of the Spirea. It has nice flowers for a short period, but after that it doesn’t do much.

  8. I like the idea of the spikenard and serviceberry and I love those ostrich ferns. I’m always moving things around in my garden. Nearly every plant here has been moved at least once and many have been moved much more than that. So I would definitely dig out the things I’m not satisfied with, find another place for them and replace them with something else. I look forward to seeing how your new choices turn out.

  9. I hadn’t heard of foundation planting before, had to do a quick lookup to satisfy my curiousity as we don’t tend to have raised foundations in the UK so it’s not a term I’d heard. I do love your planting though, it looks lush and wonderful in those spring and summer shots. I am a huge fan of Ostrich fern (I know it more as shuttlecock fern) and still contemplating where to add one/some…
    Sounds like a great opportunity to squeeze in another amelanchier.

  10. Whoever came up with the idea of planting 30 foot trees right next to the house and torturing them into 3 foot cubes and gumdrops should be forced to care for each and every one all across this country! Really, haven’t the Yews suffered enough?!

    I like the changes you’ve made and your new ideas as well.

    • Maybe we should form a “Let the Yews be Yews Committee”, to fight for laws to prohibit planting yews where they will not be able to grow to their natural height. Or we could call it “Yews Guys”.

  11. Very nice bed! But I like changes and I have personal issues with clethras so I vote for serviceberries (better than the aronia since they are so close to the house). Please let us know how things evolves in there and what the ostriches think…

  12. Jacob, I see you did a lot of work, planting these beautiful flowers. I love Columbinas, Dicentra and have they in my garden too. Your front bed looks nice.

  13. The “ostrich” bed looks very lush. Have you considered dotting pale-flowered foxgloves in there, which along with the ferns and dicentra, would give a really “woodland” feel. You’d also see the spires of flowers waving in the wind from the window.

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