Trees and shrubs form the backbone of the garden, adding aesthetic and monetary value to any property. These are permanent plantings around which smaller, showier specimens are placed. Also called foundation plants, they can be evergreen or deciduous, and species are often selected for being tough-as-nails, a quality that is gained by being bred for vigorous growth.
This last trait can prove ruinous for these poor plants, whose appearance is often considered rather bland in comparison to “eye candy” annuals and perennials. We have no compunction in practicing “meatball landscaping”, wherein all plants are subjected to constant shearing for size control or desired shapes (usually symmetrical and round). This opens them to disease, sends waste to the landfill, and ruins their natural shape.
Many foundation plants have value beyond bland outdoor furniture, particularly for wildlife. Like any other plant, they have the genetic drive to reproduce. This means flowers and seeds (though not all seeds are useful to wildlife). If left to reach a decent size, they can also provide cover for birds.
Some standard easy-care foundation plants with wildlife value include:
Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) – The trumpet-shaped flowers are great for hummingbirds and butterflies
India hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica) – The bloom season is short, but still benefits bees with nectar and birds with berries.
Japanese Mock Orange (Pittosporum tobira) – The flowers of this slow-growing shrub are lightly fragrant and attractive to bees.
Photinia (Photinia spp) – An ubiquitous landscape plant, but produces large clusters of incredibly fragrant white flowers when not constantly pruned back. Bees swarm to my photinia in spring, and birds follow later to eat the seeds.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Perhaps the most drought-tolerant of all the species listed here, rosemary is loved by humans for it’s culinary value and by bees for almost year-round blooms.
Choose an appropriate location for foundation plants (or any plant, for that matter) to suit their mature size. A common mistake is to plant too close to a building so the plant has nowhere to go, resulting in constant, odious, size-control measures. See EcoLandscape California’s website for tips on proper plant placement:
Avoid pruning to control size; plant something smaller instead. Pruning should take place for the following reasons: 1) to remove dead or diseased branches, 2) to thin so light can reach parts that are getting shaded out, or 3) to maintain a healthy shape (removing crossing branches, etc). Waiting until after bloom or until berries have been eaten to prune will maximize wildlife benefits. If you dislike the mess made by berries (and the birds eating them), prune after blooms have finished but before seeds develop.
In areas where security is an issue, visual clearance is important. In this case it might help to remove branches closer to the ground rather than constantly cutting shrubs down from the top. This creates a shrubby tree, allowing easier pedestrian access around the plant, eliminates potential hiding places, and preserves pollinator forage.