It's funny how you garden contently for years and then
in an instant decide to take a new approach.
At a recent garden lecture I sat quietly in my chair
while everyone around me furiously took notes. I am generally a note-taker myself.
This time, however, I just watched, enjoyed, and left with a blank notepad and
a desire to have something I had never had before-a decorative, intricately pruned
The hedge that inspired me didn't look like a conventional
hedge at all. It was a living fence with beautiful arched windows. Sculpted from
Carpinus betulus 'Columnaris'-Columnar European Hornbeam-it served to frame
a small courtyard garden just off a house.
When we hear the word hedge, our imaginations tend
to start and stop with the thought of a solid evergreen wall to hide the neighbors.
But consider a hedge that is deciduous, a hedge that is not solid, or simply planting
a hedge just for its beauty.
You can make a hedge from most any plant, but
you also need to consider the location, ultimate size, purpose of the hedge,
and your ability to maintain it.
Is the location you have selected sunny or shady,
sloping or flat, wet or dry? It must be appropriate for the site so that it
will grow and thrive. Next consider the sizes of any other features in the area
where the hedge will be planted, such as the height of any fences, walls, or
other large plants. Make sure it is in proportion with these elements, not competing
An important question to answer is what purpose will
the hedge serve in the garden? Will it need to screen out the neighbors 12 months
of the year or just during pool season? Is it to enclose a space, frame a part
of the garden, provide a minor visual buffer, or simply serve as decoration?
Perhaps the most important question to address is
one that you must answer with brutal honesty: what is your ability to maintain
the hedge? Your maintenance ability is measured in several ways: how much time
you have or are willing to give, what equipment or tools are required and whether
you can operate them comfortably, and what you can physically accomplish. For
this reason alone I decided to plant and maintain my decorative hedge at around
7 to 8 feet. I hope that my hedge will last forever, so I am considering that
as I get older my ability and stability on a ladder will decline. So I chose
a height that I could comfortably maintain by pruning from the ground. As my
hedge approaches the ultimate height of 8 feet I will use a small poll pruner
to reach the top.
This brings us to the fun part: what plants can
we use to make a hedge?
For the hedge that changed my thinking at the conference,
Columnar English Hornbeam was a good choice for its location because a beautiful
garden lay on the outside of the hedge. Its deciduous character and arched windows
allowed you to catch glimpses of the garden beyond. This hedge was maintained
at about 10 feet, so a dwarf or columnar slower-growing plant selection was
ideal to allow for maximum beauty with the least amount of pruning. Imagine
trying to keep a tree that wants to be 75 feet tall to a height of 10 feet by
pruning. That's a lot of pruning-certainly more than even many experienced and
dedicated gardeners would dare.
Some plants respond well to the heavy pruning required
to form and maintain a hedge while others do not. If you select a plant but
are unsure it will tolerate hedging, consult your local horticulturist before
making the investment.
You can find a list of 10 suggested plants for evergreen
and deciduous hedges in a longer version of this column, on the Internet at
But don't limit yourself to my list. There are many
more excellent plants to choose from.
In the United States it seems our lack of patience
is making an instant landscape as popular as fast food and neither is designed
for a long and healthy future. A hedge can't be achieved instantly; it takes
time, care, and patience. Start with small manageable nursery stock, plant correctly,
train them well, and enjoy them for a lifetime.
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