Most gardeners love hedges – formal or informal, they make the perfect background to a garden, defining it’s space, giving privacy and showing off your plants against a neutral background. But why is it that so many hedges are made from so few different plants? Yes, there are characteristics that hedges need that many plants don’t have – fast-growing but not fragile or easily-broken; easy to grow and undemanding; can be trimmed easily; relatively small-leaved so they don’t overpower. But not all hedges need to fall into such narrow categories, especially when they are not on your property line, but acting as internal divides.
The Value of Internal Dividing Hedges
Using hedges inside your garden can be a great way to create a unique and beautiful garden. You can create several ‘outdoor rooms’, each with a different purpose, and have a much more varied and interesting garden then with just one big spread. The most obvious use it to block off a work area – a shed, compost bins, storage, so you don’t see it from most of the garden. You can also separate a vegetable or fruit garden from an ornamental area, or a children’s play area near the kitchen window from a private, relaxing spot for the grown-ups. Hedges filter noise and throw some shade too, that is often valuable.
With internal hedges you can let your imagination go. Since they are often relatively short, you might be able to use more expensive plants. Since privacy is not a major concern, maybe they don’t have to be so fast-growing. Perhaps they can be garden features, rather than plain background. Let’s look at some ideas for more interesting hedges that might flower, or have colorful foliage, or be interesting in some other way.
For some, camellias are tricky plants that need lots of attention. But for others they are easy. If you have natural acidic soil as we find in many parts of the east, reasonable rainfall year-round, and perhaps some shade from large trees, then camellias can be great hedge plants. They have lovely glossy leaves of dark green, and the flower between fall and spring, depending on the variety – exactly when not much else in your garden is blooming.
Most varieties of Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) grow upright and with a natural tight habit, so they need little or no pruning. They will mostly grow about 6 feet in 10 years, so if you start with 3-foot plants you will have a hedge over your head within 5 or 6 years – not bad. Even faster is the sasanqua camellia (Camellia sasanqua), which can grow a foot a year. This picture shows a hedge of sasanqua camellia – wow!
You do need to choose the variety you plant more carefully, as some can be a bit loose and open for a hedge. So when choosing, no matter what type you go with, consider the likely final size, and how ‘upright’ versus ‘arching’ it is described as being. Of course, the very act of trimming will make it tighter and denser. Whatever flowering season the variety you choose has, the time to prune is right after flowering, before new buds start to open. Don’t prune at any other time, or you will remove the flower buds. A new camellia hedge should be pruned by hand, but an older one could be carefully trimmed with shears or a trimmer. The same ‘rules’ you use for all hedges apply – especially, “keep the top narrower than the bottom”.
Once you stop thinking all hedges must be evergreen, a new world opens up. After all, you aren’t in the garden so much in winter, and if privacy isn’t a big factor, then winter leaves are not 100% necessary. Many deciduous trees and shrubs grow faster than evergreens, so a hedge develops sooner. Some, like beech, even keep their (brown) leaves through winter, so you do still get quite a bit of privacy. Check this one out!
If you use flowering shrubs – Viburnums are a rich source of ideas – and if you only prune once a year, after flowering, you will still get lots of blooms. Again, make sure the variety you select is going to grow big enough for what you need.
If you want evergreen, and live in a warmer part of the country, check out the Firethorn, Pyracantha. Hardy from zones 6 or 7, these great evergreen shrubs give you an attractive spring flowering, and a fabulous fall and winter display of red or orange berries. Plus, this is one of the most impenetrable of all hedges. Thorns on the stems make it impossible to push through, so it’s great for a security hedge, even against deer, who usually won’t eat it.
It’s important to prune from an early age, and you can also push and lace through the long summer branches that grow (wear though gloves while you do this). Wait for new stems to come after flowering, and only trim them, so you preserve the berries.
In coastal areas and cold zones, one of the best and most colorful of hedges is made with Rosa rugosa, a wild species from Siberia that also has some colorful garden forms. These incredible plants are salt-resistant, cold-resistant and tough as nails. For a low to medium flowering hedge, reaching no more than 6 feet, they are unbeatable. They flower in early summer, and then sporadically through summer and in fall. The red hips are large and decorative, and in fall there are often flowers alongside the hips, a great sight. Prune in early spring, or don’t prune at all – it’s great for an informal, rugged hedge at a beach cottage. ‘F J Grootendorst’ is a good variety, with dark-pink flowers.
Can’t decide what plants to use? Then plant a tapestry hedge. Just plant whatever you like and trim once or twice a year. You will be amazed how well a variety of plants – shrubs and trees, evergreen and deciduous, grow together after a few years of trimming, and the variety of effects you get over the seasons. It’s also a great way to take advantage of fall plant sales – just buy everything that grows over 6 feet tall, including varieties with colorful foliage as well as green, and you are all set for a kaleidoscope of living color. See the picture at the top of this blog for just one example.