What is a hedge?
By definition, a hedge is “a fence or boundary formed by closely growing shrubs.”
During wintertime, we are more aware of hedges. Usually evergreen, they dominate the barren landscape when there’s not much else happening. The rest of the year they fade into the background, serving as backdrop for a more interesting garden display.
Because hedges are usually repetitive and often made up of tightly formed geometric shapes, they create a green wall — especially in contrast with a garden that has a more natural feel. If you want to soften a hedge, choose plants with a more natural growth habit. For this, Myrica californica, Laurus noblis or even great perennial grasses need only some shaping and thinning to stay in check.
Can a “hedge” be used as a landscape feature, not just a boundary?
English gardens provide some of the best lessons in using a hedge as a feature. Hedges serve as the walls of an outdoor room. This can be very effective on a large piece of property, such as in estate. A hedged area can provide intimacy and “people scale” or it can be used to define and contain a perennial or vegetable garden.
Low hedges (the obvious example being Buxus sempirvirens, the boxwood) will create a border to contain a garden bed and keep a clean edge and tidy appearance around otherwise floppy perennials, as well as provide structure in the winter.
Only in Japanese gardens can one get away with pruning Azaleas into a hedge or mounded drift. Pruned carefully and at the right time of year, Azaleas are solidly covered by flowers and a quite stunning sight. However, taken out of context —outside a formal Japanese setting — too many Azaleas can be problematic.
Keep in mind that your hedges do not have to be at the borders of the property. They can define space within a space, mark an entry or be juxtaposed with one another in modern planes creating an interesting interplay of light and shadow — think Stonehenge in England.
How do you choose shrubs for a hedge?
Before buying hedge plants, carefully consider the finished height and width you would like to obtain. Consider the site and growth rate along with the size the plants will achieve in ten years.
Beware the conifer Cedrus leylandii — it is rarely used properly for hedges, and after a few years it turns into a monster that can no longer be pruned to size (plus it has dead growth at the base, just where you don’t want it). If you use it in the city, be prepared to remove and replant shrubs every several years. This plant is better off bordering a field or rolling estate lawn, where it can be allowed to grow without pruning. I advise spending a little more up front and buying a conifer that won’t grow so quickly. Taxus bacatta, commonly called a yew, is a good choice. It grows slowly, but its rich green foliage keeps a pleasing shape. Buy plants big, plant them closer together, and you’ll get the look and size you want without the bother of overgrowth later.
I have designed both tiny gardens and estate gardens with hedges, and the principles of good design hold true for both. Contact us to talk about the best plant for your hedge and how to use hedges in innovative ways.