Who knew that something as pervasive as the common garden hedge could be one of the most exciting, interesting and important assets to the roofless room otherwise known as your yard? Hedges and hedgerows “back up”, “hold up”, “hold down”, protect, surround, divide, hide, “keep out” or “keep in” animals, people, fences, eroding soil, plants, property lines and wind. They provide both beauty and function and can even reveal your personality.
Hedges can be all one-plant variety or a mixture. They can be 20 feet or 12 inches high and planted in straight or serpentine lines. They can be tightly packed or free to roam (that’s the personality part).
Speaking generally, formal hedges are usually one repeated plant, perfectly clipped or sheared. Hedgerows are wild, free, full of surprises and include a mixture of trees, shrubs and vines.
Most local hedging is formal and clipped.
The Big Three hedges in the South Sound (English Laurel, Arborvitae-Pyramidalis and Photinia) are safe, beautiful choices, but there are plenty of other shrubs, trees and vines that can inject some “wow factor” into a home garden.
First, a little about the Big Three. Left unpruned, English Laurel (Prunus laurocerus) grows 20 feet high and 20 feet wide. Prune often to keep it tamed. It is evergreen and can grow up to 5 feet in a year. This is one reason for laurels’ popularity. They are fast growing and can be planted 4 or 5 feet apart and form a hedge that fills in fast. They are easily propagated so the cost is reasonable. However, a sturdy ladder and some heavy duty, long lasting hedge trimmers should be sold with every English laurel. They are high maintenance hedges for a small garden but ideal for a larger garden.
Arborvitae-Pyramidalis (Thuja occidentalis ‘Pyramidalis’) are great as hedges until one of them dies, which seems to be a common occurrence years after they are planted. Then you have a long strip of gorgeous, green flat-needled evergreen shrubs spoiled by a dead, brown monstrosity or a gaping hole. The problem comes when you try to replace it with one equally as large as the ones that have been growing for the past 5-10 years. Good luck and get out the checkbook. Arborvitaes are good choices for a formal, evergreen hedges but they do have that risky side.
Photinia fraserii is the striking red-tipped evergreen hedge that surrounds many commercial properties, schoolyards and older, larger neighborhood landscapes. Photinia grow in the 10-15 foot range and occasionally suffer from something called bacterial leaf spot. If you have a photinia hedge, chances are you’re familiar with this malady. It can be controlled by constantly raking out old leaves under the shrubs. Photinia is easy to grow, reasonably priced and gives a real ‘punch’ when its bright red new growth appears.
Each one of the “Big Three” has plenty of positive attributes, which is why they’re heavily planted in the South Sound. They’re safe bets, reliable, easy to find and inexpensive. They’re “big box” hedges. But there are so many more choices. With a little research and some break-out thinking you can come up with some “gee-whiz” hedges that are just as reliable as the Big Three but add more leaf, flower and structural interest. Anything goes as long as you plant in good soil with the right light and pay close attention to your preference for pruning.
The less formal hedgerows of England, those that criss-cross the fields and have served as property lines for the past seven centuries often have more than 40 plant species tangled and intertwined. They are impenetrable forces of contrived and controlled nature. Just imagine the possible plant combinations. There isn’t any reason why we can’t grow a smaller and even more beautiful version of these age-old living sculptures. We can grow just about everything in the South Sound anyway so why not combine some of your favorites and soon-to-be favorites in a hedge? How about a mixture of shrubs and small trees so that if one dies, you won’t even miss it? How about mixing in some deciduous plants for fall color or some flowering vines? Choices are endless. We are only limited by time, space and creativity.
To assure any type of hedge success, start with sticks and string to mark where you want your hedge to be when full grown. Then find suitable varieties that won’t get any larger than the space you created. That way you won’t have to prune. Of course, if you find the swishing sound of the hedge trimmer therapeutic, then go for something that will outgrow its bounds. There are plenty of those. Your penchant for pruning will be fully utilized.
Purchase plants 12, 18 or 24 inches tall and make sure they are on their own roots or, be aware that you may have some understock surprises. Roses are an exception. Most of them are grafted and their rootstocks are interesting in their own rights.
Dig deep, wide and well to prepare the site. A general rule for really tight, dense hedges that fill in at top speed is to plant a trunk about every 30 inches. This is true for hedges of single plants as well as mixed plants. With mixed hedges, develop a ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude. That way you won’t be disappointed if a few of your choices rebel.
Remember that the first and last plants should not be at the very ends; they should be on the “centers”. Hedges should be at least four feet away from paths or fences. Leave at least three feet between the hedge and any bulbs, perennials or other shrubs you want to plant at the base. Otherwise, the larger hedge roots will steal water and fertilizer from the more fibrous roots of smaller plants. The extra few feet also give you room to maneuver, especially helpful if your hedge is a thorny one. And make sure you have a good relationship with your neighbor. If your hedge is on their property, they have the right but not the obligation to cut it back.
You don’t need a committee to decide on what to include in the project but it might be fun to get the family involved in choosing some plants. That way, everyone has some “ownership” in the decision-making. More of an interest in the rewarding hobby of gardening just might follow. With any luck they might even get interested in weeding…naaahhhhh……
Hedges and hedgerows are a living, breathing part of any landscape. They are big commitments and permanent legacies. You can plant a tree for the future but you can also plant a hedge.
Underused and overlooked hedgerow material
Evergreen plants like California lilac, (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus), Cotoneaster multiflorus, Salal (Gaultheria shallon), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea), Rosemary officinalis, Euonymous and Escallonia species provide texture.
Vines like Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and Clematis Montana cover fast and make colorful, if ephemeral, spring and summer hedge additions.
Deciduous trees like beech (Fagus sylvatica), Hawthorne (Crataegus species) or Amur maple (Acer ginnala) fulfill the need for pruning sprees.
Deciduous shrubs like Rosa rugosa, Forsythia, Viburnums, Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) and red flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum) provide seasonal flower and foliage color.
For some good hedging examples visit Powellswood in Federal Way (www.powellswood.org).