Anchors and Foundation Plants | Create Structure and Balance with Winter Interest
winter garden

Adding Structure & Winter Interest into Gardens

Now that we’re transitioning from late fall to early winter, many experienced growers have winterized their garden beds, put away their tools, and started planning for the spring season to come. Others are still planting and working since the ground in our grow zone doesn’t freeze as frequently or as early as it used to. If you can dig, you can plant! Winter interest gardens are becoming more and more popular in Maryland, and one of the best times to evaluate how to add winter interest to your home landscaping is, well, in winter!

Late fall to early winter is a great time to step back and look at what your garden looks like right now. The majority of your main attraction plants have gone dormant. Where does your eye go? Are there any areas that are lacking focus, have something missing, or just look a little off?
Winter gardens are all about celebrating the softer palette of the winter season, but you still want your landscaping to feel balanced and aesthetically pleasing.

The trouble with adding winter interest to your garden is that you want to use plants that work with your garden in every season, then step in and shine when everything else has gone to sleep. You don’t want to add winter interest plants that will compete with your garden, or look unbalanced in the other three seasons of the year.

To incorporate winter interest into your home landscaping, try this technique: make sure your garden has good anchors and that your home has good foundation plants. These two principles of landscaping are great ways to bring evergreen foliage and winter interest into your garden designs.

winter garden

The Difference Between Anchor And Foundation Plants

Anchor Plants

When we are referring to anchor plants in this article, we don’t mean Colletia paradoxa (an attractive shrub native to Uruguay); we mean plants that have a specific job in your garden. An anchor plant is a taller plant, usually a tall woody shrub or a moderate to dwarf-sized tree, around which you plant your garden.

These plants work as focal points within your garden or landscaping; your design will have a sense of structure and form to it. Anchor plants can also bring height, color and texture to your garden, adding visual interest.

A good anchor plant is one that you can anchor your designs to, making planning out a garden a little easier. If you are familiar with the old container recipe “thriller-spiller-filler” then the anchor tree or shrub is the thriller in your larger landscape recipe.

If you plant more than one of the same anchor plants as focal points, it creates a nice pattern and a sense of continuity and you can mix and match the other plants that go around your anchors.  The best anchor plants hold their own in winter and then complement the rest of your garden in other seasons.

Foundation Plants

Foundation plants are the kinds of plants that you use to hide the foundation of your house. They’re often bushes and shrubs in front of houses but there is a lot of variety available for plants around your house. Houses can sometimes look jarring against a natural background, especially when they are first built. One of the biggest goals with landscaping for the home is to help blend the house in with the front yard and the ground around it.

Softening the corners and edges of a home with green foliage is a great way to create instant curb appeal – you make the home look like it belongs in its surroundings. The best kinds of plants in front of your house and around your foundation don’t compete with the house, they simply frame and soften the look of the home. You want trees and shrubs that have a consistent look all year, so we recommend using evergreens as the majority of your foundation plants.

Plants in your foundation bed shouldn’t block windows or need lots of pruning to stay tidy – less maintenance is best. A balanced layout with evergreen landscaping shrubs and plants in front of your house can create a sense of permanence and stability to the look of your home.

winter garden

Blend Your Home With It's Surroundings

To summarize, anchor plants add focal points to your garden, and foundation plants help blend your home in with its surroundings.

There are many trees and shrubs that can achieve both goals. Sometimes one or two of your foundation shrubs will also serve as the anchor to your front yard gardens. More often than not anchors and foundation plants are in different parts of your home landscaping and serve different purposes.

If you want your anchors to provide winter interest and feel balanced within your garden, early winter is a good time to see where your garden still needs anything. Pick a spot where you want something to focus on in winter; then in the spring, you can plan your garden around your new anchor, creating a sense of balance all year long.

winter garden

Assessing Your Garden

Use early winter to assess how well your foundation plants are doing their job. Flowering shrubs can look spectacular at the corner of your home (especially dramatic hydrangeas with their pink and blue flowers), but how does that corner look when the shrub is dormant? Is your foundation still hidden?

If you look at your house from the curb, do you like its appeal in winter? Finding an evergreen tree or shrub that creates curb appeal in early winter means it will create curb appeal for every other season – that’s the beauty of a good evergreen!

winter garden

Examples of Anchor Plants and Foundation Plants

Here are a few suggestions to get you started if you’re looking to add winter interest:


Crape Myrtles

Holly Trees & Tall Holly Shrubs

Tall Rhododendron Varieties (English Roseum)

Red Twig Dogwoods

Tall Viburnum Varieties (Doublefile)

Ornamental Grasses (but these don’t draw focus in spring when they are cut)

Hinoki Cypress

Japanese Maples

Multistem Birches

Foundation Plants


Japanese Hollies


Dwarf Arborvitaes

Dwarf Spruces

Nandinas (sterile varieties are available)

Evergreen Rhododendrons


Otto Luyken Cherry Laurels

Dwarf Varieties of False Cypress

crape myrtle trees in winter bring interest and work well as anchor plants
foundation plants need to work year round tucking house into hill

Come in and share your winter garden plans with our staff, so we can help make suggestions and learn from your creativity! We love talking about plants and we love collaborating with our community even more.

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