Hedges: Great Windbreaks and Privacy Screens


Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

Now is the time to plan

Although I’ve never read a scientific paper on the value of hedges for garden plants, my personal theory is that they are beneficial, particularly in winter. They break the cold winter winds that damage flower buds on trees and shrubs in cold times. They can also help keep soil from drying out from hot, dry winds in summer. Easier to install and less expensive than wood fences or stone walls, this is a good time to think about planting a hedge, come summer. 

This hemlock hedge provides a wind block and visual barrier from the neighbors

Hedges can be grown using almost any plant material that survives our winters – or even those that die back to the ground each winter. For most of us, the important thing is that they look good, be affordable and grow relatively quickly.

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If you want a tall hedge to screen an eyesore or provide privacy, you should select a woody evergreen hedge. Canadian hemlock if good for that – it grows fast and will grow close together. For a 6-foot hedge, plant hemlocks 6 feet apart. For an 8-foot hedge, 8 feet apart, and so on. Yew is also good, but generally is pruned to stay lower and deer love to eat it. Boxwood and privet are traditional hedges, but privet (a deciduous shrub) is now considered an invasive plant in many places and discouraged or prohibited.

In order to keep an evergreen hedge looking good, you need to taper it so that the bottom has longer branches than those on top. That allows the lower branches to get more sunlight.

This hedge tapers to let lower branches get sunshine

When planting a shrub or tree for hedging you should start with small plants, plant them close together, prune early on, and prune hard. By pruning early and hard you encourage good branching down low, so you don’t end up with a gawky hedge with little greenery near the bottom.

It’s best to prune your hedge one to three times each summer, even when they are small – to encourage branching and maintain a thick hedge. If you don’t prune every year, your hedge will have thick, stubby branches when you cut it back instead of small, feathery branches. And it can get too tall.

Cost is an issue when selecting plants for hedges, as they require many plants. Ideally you can use plant material that you own and can divide and use for free. I’ve rooted willow twigs to create a small wall. Lilacs often send out root suckers that can be dug up and moved. According to what I’ve read, other good candidates for rooting include elder, flowering quince, forsythia, mock orange, rugosa rose, spirea, viburnums and witch hazel.

After blooming this forsythia hedge will fill in with leaves that provide privacy

Creative pruning of hedges can create dramatic results. There is no reason why a flat and “boring” hedge cannot be pruned to different heights to create a wave of green mimicking a distant view, or shaped to have a pointy top or be shaped like a dome. And you can trim a hedge to different heights at different places to open up a view – or hide the abandoned car on your neighbor’s property.

This sculpted hedge is professionally maitained in Plainfield, NH

In addition to the usual hedge plants, edible hedges can be made using gooseberries, currants or blueberries. Decorative grasses can be used, or even golden rod (if you dare risk the scorn of your neighbors).  I once divided and moved several large peonies for a client who was re-doing a garden. I divided them into 50 plants and spaced them so that, when mature, the foliage would mingle and create a single row of plants. By now it must be drop-dead gorgeous in June. It’s not a hedge that provides privacy, but it is wonderful in bloom and it sets off their lawn from the neighbor’s lawn. 

Lastly, you can make a hedge by installing (or utilizing an existing fence) and growing vines on it. Evergreen euonymus (Euonymus fortunei) is an evergreen variegated-leafed vine that will grow in shade and is quite vigorous. And most vines will start easily from cuttings. English ivy, Virginia creeper, or even grapes can be used. When they mature, the fence disappears, and you have a wall of green. Climbing hydrangea will not attach to a wooden fence, but it can be attached to one, and will grow in full shade and flowers magnificently.

A word of caution: if you are using a hedge as a separation of your property from a neighbor’s, remember that the neighbor should be consulted, as they will have to trim their side of the hedge. Or plant it far enough back from the property line that you can trim both sides, without stepping off your own property.

This one year old Rugosa rose hedge in Cornish will become thick and prickly - with nice flowers

Your hedge probably won’t serve to keep out hungry animals. Deer are really the only ones you have to worry about in most neighborhoods, and anything less than 8 feet is just an easy leap for all but oldest, most arthritic deer. Still, it will keep out young neighborhood ruffians, particularly if the plants have thorns.

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