Benjamin Franklin said: “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge”. A hedge is a living fence, made up of shrubs or trees, and can serve numerous purposes. A short hedge may delineate an edge or enclosure, as often seen in formal, geometric landscape designs using boxwoods. Taller hedges create a protective enclosure, or screen an undesirable view. Because a hedge must work all year, evergreen plants are typically used. If you are considering a hedge, or have one in need of rejuvenation, there are several things to keep in mind as you plan.
Start with a good foundation. Planting a hedge requires a number of plants, and will be in place for years to come, so it is quite an investment of time and energy. You want to be sure the planting area is optimal. Take a soil test to determine if lime and fertilizer is needed. Will you have irrigation to water your plants? All plants require additional watering when they are getting established — and during dry periods — and irrigation will help ensure they get the water they need.
If at all possible (and especially if irrigation isn’t used) plant your hedge in the fall to give plants a head start. Fall planting for trees and shrubs is always a good idea. It allows roots to grow and become established without having to support top growth. When purchasing plants, keep in mind they are available in various sizes, from a 2-foot plant in a 3-gallon pot, to a ball and burlap plant that can be 8 feet tall or larger. The larger plant will be many times more expensive than the smaller one, and will probably require professional installation due to its size. Unless there is a pressing need for an immediate screen, a smaller plant will usually catch up to the larger plant with in a matter of five years or less, and may be a healthier plant in the long run.
Next step: what plants will you choose for your hedge or screen?
Leyland cypress is commonly used as a screen or hedge. They are fast growing and capable of attaining heights up to 100’ tall. Unfortunately, due to their widespread use, they are plagued with pest and disease issues which make them a liability in the landscape.
There are better choices for screening plants. If you are set on having the look of the Leyland Cypress, consider the arborvitae ‘Green Giant’, which is very similar in form, though a more emerald shade of green compared to Leylands. Hollies work very well: evergreen, they naturally achieve a rounded pyramidal shape, have few pests and disease problems, and species are available in a range of heights and widths to fit every need. They also produce berries which are attractive to birds in the winter. ‘Nellie Stevens’ and ‘Burford’ are two of the larger species, capable of reaching 25 feet high. Somewhat smaller but still substantial are ‘Emily Bruner’, and ‘Oak Leaf Holly’. ‘Dwarf Burford’, which matures around 5-6 feet tall, is smaller still.
Other plants with potential for hedges or screens include Osmanthus spp, which have an insignificant flower which blooms in fall or early spring, depending on the species, and which are extremely fragrant. Camellias make wonderful screens, with the added benefit of having attractive flowers through the winter. When choosing, know your cultivar. Cultivar — a specific genetic selection of a plant species, usually demonstrating a desirable characteristic — matters in all plants, but especially in camellias.
Flower size and color vary widely among cultivars, as does plant height, width, and density, so choose carefully, or you may pick the narrow ‘Yuletide’ camellia which will not fill out the allotted space adequately.
There is an almost innumerable list of plants suited for hedges and screens, depending on the goals of the homeowner. As you plan your selections, be sure you know the mature size of the plant. A small plant in a 3 gallon pot in six years may be 5 feet around, so proper plant spacing is very important. Overcrowding can lead to disease problems, browning out, and other problems. One trick to help prevent crowding while still creating a screen is to stagger plants in a zigzag planting, so that visually they overlap but they still have space to grow.
A final tip for planting a screen: we tend to think of hedges and screens as being a single species, planted one next to another in a line. While some may argue this is visually pleasing, it can create problems as the hedge ages. If the plants are mature and relatively uniform, an unfortunate circumstance can ruin the visual uniformity. Disease or pests may kill some plants, or a falling tree damage the middle of the hedge.
When replacing, the new, very small plants will look very strange next to the more mature plants, and will never achieve a uniform appearance. Instead of planting a single line of one species, consider planting a mixture of plants of different species, in an irregular arrangement as suits their mature size, to achieve the goal. Hollies next to arborvitaes, with a camellia or even a deciduous tree thrown in for good measure. The mix of color, texture, and size is more interesting visually, and if one plant needs to be replaced, the affect is much less visually disruptive.
If “good fences means good neighbors,” make yours a healthy living hedge that will add beauty to your landscape!
Paige Burns is a horticulture agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension office in Rockingham.