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birdbath
Flowers are used to anchor the base of this birdbath

To average passerby admiring a beautifully landscaped scene, the smaller plants at the base of larger elements might go unnoticed, save for a nod to a choice plant or two that catches one's attention. The admirer would simply acknowledge that the composition is pleasing. The astute garden designer, on the other hand, knows that these plants have in fact been placed there to perform a specific function, and understands how they contribute to a highly effective composition.

Since you desire to learn from the masters and make your gardens as beautiful as possible, let's guide you through the principles behind these strategically placed plants known as "facer plants". These are plants that are used in a landscape composition to "face down" other more vertical landscape elements. They are recognizable as the lower, smaller and bushier plants that have been intentionally situated at the bases and towards the front of taller plants and landscape structures.

Facer plants serve one or more of the following objectives in the landscape;

- they conceal the lower extremities of landscape elements with unattractive bases or which lack lower definition
- they visually anchor taller elements to the ground, filling them out from top to bottom
- they provide a tapered base for elements which would otherwise look like they abruptly "poke out" of the ground.

The best way to understand the role that facer plants play in a landscape is to examine some of their more common applications.

foundation planting
The ubiquitous foundation planting

One usage of facer plants that you're surely familiar with is in the ubiquitous foundation planting. Because the unadorned foundations of homes and other buildings are often uninteresting or even unsightly, conventional landscape designers conceal them with low, dense gardens which are much more visually appealing. As a result, almost every suburban landscape in North America has a garden running along the front foundation of the house, with many extending along the sides and even the rear as well. These gardens are of a height and density such that the plants obscure the view of the dreary foundation, instead replacing it with a variety of colors, forms and textures which are much more pleasing to look at.

An even more effective use of facer plants is to hide the legginess of other plants in the landscape. Leggy plants are those for which the ornamental attributes such as flowers and foliage tend to be concentrated in the upper parts of the plant, with the base relatively bare and uninteresting. Examples of these are the tall (Tatarian) honeysuckles, most forsythias and many of the mockoranges. In extreme cases, leggy plants don't even have leaves or branches on their lower parts, as is the case with the common lilac and most of the French hybrids, not to mention top-grafted standards, which look rather forlorn if left standing alone. Such is the case with tall, leggy perennials such as delphiniums, hollyhocks, monkshood, peonies, garden phlox and rudbeckia.

That's where facer plants come to the rescue. A good garden designer will plant lower-growing plants in front of a leggy plant to hide it's legginess and bring the greenery and interest right down to the ground level. The best designers will even employ two or three tiers of plants with complementary attributes to visually step down the leggy plant to the front of the border. As a result, the primary plant now looks full and interesting from top to bottom.

But facer plants don't just face down other plants; they can also serve a valuable function with hard landscape elements, particularly those which are strongly vertical or which abruptly rise out of the ground, such as ornamental lamp standards and signs. Almost anything that sits atop a pole or standard can look rather stark if it abruptly juts out of the ground. A circling of facer plants at the base helps to give these structures a tapered, more natural transition and visually ties them to the ground.

Facer perennials
Facer perennials tie this decorative wall to the ground

In fact, many man-made structures look better when their bases are faced with a small tapered garden. Statues look exceptional when they rise from a lush green base rather than shooting out of the bare ground or grass. Gate posts, address signs, decorative fountains and arbors are all examples of stark man-made structures that are softened by a tasteful collection of facer plants surrounding their bases.

Not just any plant thrown at the base of a leggy structure will serve this function, so what makes a good facer plant? Facer plants are generally small and low-growing, as they are required to be smaller than the structures they face down. They should be relatively dense so that the aspects of the plant or structure they are concealing don't show through, and their bases need to be closed to the ground. This last trait is probably the most important. Think about it - wouldn't it defeat the purpose to face down a leggy plant with a smaller leggy plant?

Facer plants can have some interest, although it isn't a prerequisite, and in fact in some cases (e.g. with statuary) you wouldn't want the facer plant to visually compete with the primary element. Much more important in a good facer plant is endurance and full-season performance; the ideal candidate serves its function well for 3 or even 4 seasons without any "dead" spots where it begs to be concealed itself! Good candidates are therefore plants with enduring foliage characteristics, whether variegated for interest, or just pleasantly green all season long to provide a solid grounding.

Here are a few examples of good facer plants;

  • Shrubs:
    • dwarf conifers like dwarf mugo pine, nest spruce or globe cedars
    • spreading junipers
    • compact spireas
    • dwarf boxwood or globe caragana
    • false spirea
    • potentilla
    • Japanese barberry

  • Perennials:
    • coralbells
    • hostas
    • lady's mantle
    • artemisia
    • blanketflower
    • daylilies
    • sedum

  • Creative options:
    • ornamental grasses
    • ferns

So what's the trick to creating a good facer garden? A good planting uses dense plants and so should be densely planted as well. Facer shrubs and perennials should be planted close together - a good rule of thumb would be to plant them at half to two thirds the distance apart as their mature spread. They should be of a size that is proportional to the plant or structure being faced down. A taller element would call for larger facer shrubs, while a smaller element might be better faced with low-growing perennials.

double flowering plum
Perennials hide the legginess of this double flowering plum

Facer gardens should always step down in height away from the element being faced down and towards the observer in the landscape. In other words, place the tallest facer plants right up against the element, with smaller and smaller tiers towards the front of the garden. How many tiers you use is up to you; a single tier of an interesting element such as a spreading juniper can be enough to ground a smaller lamp standard, while a three or four-tier garden would be more appropriate to face down the foundation and blank wall of a house or garage.

Facer gardens look best with the plants used in "swaths", which are long and relatively thin rows that wind around or curve into each other. Smaller gardens can use single rows, while larger gardens should have multiple rows to achieve depth and weight. The facer plants should always be planted in homogeneous masses, whether shrubs or perennials. Use odd numbers of plants, offsetting or alternating them in multiple rows. Wind and curve them in non-linear landscapes, or plant them in geometric formations for more formal styles.

Keep in mind what it is that you are facing down, and whether the facer garden is being used to ground it to the landscape or if it is strictly concealing something. If the garden is facing down or grounding an accent element such as statuary or a fountain, it shouldn't compete visually, and so you'll want to use more subdued plants; choose those with consistent foliage characteristics and without excessively loud or showy ornamental features. If on the other hand you are simply concealing a foundation or wall, you would want to introduce interest into the composition, adding colors and textures and blending shapes.

tree trunk
Creative garden faces down a lanky tree trunk

Creative gardeners will experiment with combinations of the above techniques, which can produce spectacular results. They will seek complementary attributes between the facer plants and the structure they are facing down, and between the plants themselves, following good color design principles. Likewise, they will play with various forms and textures, creatively utilizing both harmonious and contrasting attributes to maximize effect.

Now that you know what facer gardens are and how they are used, take a look around your landscape and make a note of the various elements that could stand to be faced down. Look for leggy shrubs and perennials that are missing definition at their bases. Identify dull walls or foundations that could use both interest and a taper towards the viewer. Pick out the structures that rise too abruptly out of the ground, looking unnatural or like rockets ready for launch.

All of these are candidates for facing down with facer plants. You'll find that the caliber of your landscape increases exponentially once you've properly applied these simple gardens, and your neighbors will be coming to you for advice!

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