“Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.”
–George Herbert, 1593-1633, English poet and Anglican priest
Truth be told, most of us appreciate some sort of separation between our private lives and the outside world. In the garden, a hedge may be your best bet for drawing that line.
Taller hedges create privacy, shield views and muffle sound. They also dress up blank walls and chain link fences, and even block intruders, provided they bear thorns.
Shorter hedges may organize space by enclosing a lawn, vegetable garden or utility area.
And the shortest of hedges can frame other plantings. Think how artfully the Europeans use knee-high boxwood hedges to edge flower beds and create knot gardens.
Yet your hedges do not have to be rigid, clipped strips of green. While the best hedge shrubs will quickly rebound from a fairly severe trim two or three times a year, they can also be pruned with a light hand, to present a more natural appearance.
Some of the most natural-looking hedges are composed of native plants.
Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia) is among the tallest, growing to 20 feet tall and wide in the wild, while bearing thick, leathery green leaves and sticky, edible berries. In the garden, lemonade berry can be easily trimmed to 10 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide.
Likewise, hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) and Catalina cherry (Prunus lyonii) will form beefy hedges up to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide on their own, but can be kept considerably smaller.
Wild lilac (Ceanothus) grows fast, and needs no irrigation after its first year in the ground. Taller varieties, such as Ray Hartman and Sierra Blue, grow at least 15 feet tall, while Julia Phelps reaches about 8 feet. All can be limited to a strip 4 to 5 feet wide.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) naturally approaches 8 to 15 feet tall and wide. But as a hedge, it can top out at 10 feet, with sides trimmed 3 feet wide.
In the garden, Howard McMinn manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’) and Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) can be maintained at 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
Some hedge plants require only an occasional trim. These shrubs prefer selective pruning, rather than indiscriminate shearing, which can shred their leaves.
In the shade or in a spot that receives only direct morning light, plant a row of camellias (Camellia japonica), which bear clean, glossy green leaves. Be sure to choose an upright grower, rather than one that weeps or cascades. For a camellia that blooms In red, look for Kramer’s Supreme or Tom Knudsen; in pink, Debutante or Pearl Maxwell; and in white, Nuccio’s Gem.
In partial shade to full sun, try sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans), yew pine (Podocarpus macrophyllus), Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis) or Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus).
In full sun, photinia (Photinia fraseri), with its flush of new, red growth, makes a showy hedge. Use hand clippers to tip prune the branches to keep the shrubs nice and full.
A Heavy Trim
Other hedges don’t flinch under even the most severe shearing and pruning.
Boxwood, the traditional go-to hedge shrub, has been clipped, nipped and tucked for ages, yet keeps right on living. Its biggest drawback may be the pace of its growth, which is excruciatingly slow.
English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), with glossy, oval leaves, eventually reaches 15 to 20 feet. Japanese boxwood (Buxus microphylla japonica) grows 4 to 6 feet high, but can be kept much shorter.
Escallonia, euonymus and African boxwood (Myrsine africana) are fast-growing alternatives. All three are clean, lustrous-leaved shrubs, with upright varieties conveniently growing twice as tall as wide. But if you still must shape them, they’ll take to it well.
Privet (Ligustrum) and myrtle (Myrtus communis) can be sheared or trimmed into just about any shape — from squares to globes to twisting spirals. But both produce prodigious pollen that can induce allergy attacks.
Several pittosporums take to shearing and shaping. Silver Sheen (Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Sheen’) bears small, shimmery leaves on wine-red stems. Left alone, it may reach 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. But it can be easily maintained at 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide.
Other adaptable hedges include Italian buckthorn (Rhamnus alaternus), which grows fast to 20 feet tall and wide, and eugenia (Syzygium paniculatum), which, unpruned, can reach an astounding 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide.
Yet both behave beautifully under just about anyone’s pruning style, thrive with no water to regular irrigation, and will grow in full sun or filtered shade.
Flowers and Fruit
Not all hedges are a solid wall of green.
Hold off shearing glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora), and you’ll be rewarded with a thicket of tall, arching stems bearing dainty white and pink bell-shaped flowers much of the year.
Sky flower (Duranta) is an upright grower that bears dangling strings of small white, blue or navy flowers trimmed in white. Two variegated-leaf varieties, Golden Edge and Variegata, don’t bloom as heavily, but make up for it with beautiful patterns on their foliage.
Coast rosemary (Westringia fruticosa) gets its common name from the look of its stubby, rosemary-like leaves, rather than any scent or culinary value. As a hedge, it forms a billowy screen of fine-textured gray-gray leaves about 5 feet tall and up to 8 feet wide. Wynyabbie Gem bears lavender flowers and grows in a wide, upright “V.”
For fruiting hedges, look for pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana), which can be pruned to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Pretty red and white striped flowers appear in spring, followed by edible, tropical fruits.
Dwarf strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo ‘Elf King’) is an adorable — albeit messy — shrub that bears soft, pompom fruits in orange, yellow and red most of the year. The fruits are edible, but not particularly tasty. It grows relatively slowly to 5 feet tall.
For these hedge shrubs, you’ll want to wear heavy gloves and use loppers — not hand pruners — to shape them.
The aptly named firethorn (Pyracantha) bears bright red berries in fall and winter that will invite scores of birds into your garden.
Nasty thorns line the branches of holly (Ilex) and natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa).
A line of shrub roses can thwart intruders as well.
Choose shrubs that respond well to ongoing shaping and pruning, then space them 3 to 4 feet apart, so that their side branches will knit together.
If you’re planting against a fence or wall, plan for a gap 1 to 2 feet wide on the back side so that you can squeeze in to prune.
On the front side, leave a gap as well. Trimming the backs and fronts will stimulate that sideways growth that turns the individual shrubs into a wall of greenery.
Plant knee-high perennials or shrubs just beyond the gap in front, to hide any scraggly foliage that might form just off the ground.
Early on, deep soak your hedge every week or two to encourage vigorous roots. Also mulch the ground beneath to maintain moisture, moderate the soil temperature and help prevent weeds.
After the first year, most hedge plants will thrive with a deep soak about once a month. However, many natives, including ceanothus, toyon and lemonade berry, can be weaned off irrigation entirely.
Seeds of Wisdom
To encourage your hedge shrubs to remain thick from top to bottom, trim your hedge into a slight pyramid, with the top narrower than the base. That way adequate sunlight reaches the lower leaves, which promotes more vigorous growth.
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