In the Garden: Hedges and Screens


By Charles Kidder

“I need to screen my neighbor’s house. What’s a good plant for a hedge?” It might well be the gardening question I’m most commonly asked. Never one for a simple answer, I usually come back with a series of questions: Do you have sun or shade? How tall do you want the hedge to be? How wide? How much maintenance do you want? (The truthful answer: zero.) The straightforward answer to this question: there is no single bullet-proof hedge plant, no matter what the ads in the Sunday supplements may lead you to believe.

“Hedge” can mean somewhat different things depending on where you’re from. If you visit or even fly over the UK, you will gain a true appreciation for hedges. From the air, rural England is a patchwork of fields, pastures and the hedges that demarcate them, one of the most benignly beautiful landscapes imaginable. On the ground, these centuries-old hedges can be harder to appreciate. Driving down a single-lane road in Cornwall, you can see nothing beyond the six-foot hedge and are always worrying about what will be coming around the next blind corner! Still, the Brits are understandably protective of their hedges and the variety of wildlife that inhabits them. But to many Americans, hedges are no more than green walls that might just as well be plastic.

The question of the proper plant for your hedge really boils down to the maxim that applies when choosing any plant for your landscape: right plant, right place, as in sun/shade, wet/dry, etc. Perhaps the toughest question you’ll face when choosing the right plant is size. Noodling around on the Internet, I came across a thread on plant selection for a Virginia hedge. A woman posed the question, noting that she wanted something “10’-15’ high, perhaps Leyland Cypress or hemlock.” At this point, your horticultural alarms should be squawking. Both of these trees can easily reach fifty feet tall—assuming they survive long enough, but that’s another issue. The questioner went on to say that she actually wanted something that “went six feet high and grew fairly quickly.” Now, think about this. This perfect plant grows quickly to six feet, then somehow miraculously stops. Maybe there’s a secret OFF switch?

When designing your hedge, pick your target height and width first thing, then go in search of the right plant. Most good plant labels will state the mature size of the plant but often not the ultimate size. The first might be achieved after ten years, the second after twenty or thirty years. It also pays to do additional research on size, either on the Internet or in good old-fashioned books. These sources can also provide a clue to growth rate. Be wary if they say “fast.”

When picking height, consider what you’re trying to block—assuming that’s your goal—and where you‘ll be when looking toward the hedge. Standing at your kitchen window? Or perhaps seated in your living room? Your eyeballs and line of sight will be at very different heights in each situation. And of course a hedge does not necessarily have to be blocking a view. Two-foot-high shrubs can define a garden bed, for example. Or a taller hedge can provide a green backdrop that better shows off a perennial bed. And don’t forget about width. Wider plants will fill in more quickly, assuming that you can provide them room to spread. Finally, what about texture? Prickly plants like hollies, roses and barberries are good for discouraging intruders.

I recently stopped over at the home of my old friends, Crozet Cottage Gardener and her husband, Prairie Gardener. My visit revealed two very different examples of hedges. The first was the three-sided privet hedge that was there when they bought the property in 1990. It had been planted long before that and had grown to resemble a row of Monet haystacks. If confronted with the same situation, I might have bulldozed the whole lot and started over. But Prairie Gardener is a man who thrives on hard work. He attacked the 150-foot hedge, in the early years only with hand shears. He initially brought the sides down to eight feet, meaning he still had to work on a ladder, so eventually he brought it lower so he could reach it from the ground. At the top, the hedge is no more than two to three feet wide, allowing PG to easily reach across it with shears. Hedges should be slightly narrower at the top, allowing light to reach the bottom twigs, maintaining fullness.

The other hedge at The Gardeners is just beginning to take shape. They anticipate selling a couple of lots, with construction of new houses expected shortly afterward, and want to screen that view. This hedge will really be more of a glade, or parkland of trees, rather than a tightly sheared row of evergreens. A few oaks are already in place, to be followed by maples, with dogwoods and shrubs serving as an understory. All of this underscores some important points about hedges: they don’t have to be evergreen. As PG noted, “I like it being deciduous, because then you get views in winter that you don’t see at the times when you’re typically out and active in your yard.” Also, a hedge can be composed of more than one species, giving a more natural look and providing a more diverse habitat for wildlife.

Much of the world’s home gardens are quite different from ours. In Europe, hedges, or perhaps walls, define the yard with a more private space within. Now many Americans want a clean swath between house and street. Is this part of a move toward more openness and egalitarianism? Or is it just a way of improving curb appeal, as in, “Look at my lovely home!”

In contrast, older American homes often had substantial hedges, and as Prairie Gardener observed, “I think it’s a shame so many people have abandoned their old hedges and pulled them out…They can be green and architectural.”