Hedging Our Landscaping Bets

Hedging Our Landscaping Bets

  • By David Garth
  • /
  • October 2018 - Vol.4 No.10
  • /
  • 1 Comment

Sometimes the least-noticed element of yard or garden makes all the difference.  When hedges frame our yards they can do more than mark boundaries because their mass directs our vision, keeping attention on what we’ve planted within the hedge as well as masking distractions on neighboring property.  At the same time, those sometimes nondescript shrubs are protecting us from random children and dogs, they add a contrasting backdrop to lawn and flowers we’ve carefully tended.  Whether it’s a line of ho-hum shrubbery or a magnificent wall of color and texture, these additions to the landscape shape the impression made by all our gardening efforts.  From a tiny parterre bed of herbs or blossoms to the sweeping art of a magnificent estate, hedges enhance the creativity of a gardener the way a carved wooden frame and mat turn an ordinary photograph into artistry.  In this article, we’ll explore how shrubs can prove to be both functional and imaginative.  In theory, anything can make a hedge: tall ground covers, ornamental grasses, flowers or even trees; but we use the word mostly for shrubs, which is the focus today.

Functionality and Hedges

Privacy hedge. Photo: Tom Sulcer

Let’s start with how ordinary plants in a row can serve several purposes.  When my neighbor cleared the lot next door for her new house, my wife realized our garage light and compost pile faced their bedroom windows.  Changing the light was a quick fix.  Then we also set out boxwood, Clerodendron, and a redbud sapling.  The Clerodendron will soon make a 15-20 foot high grouping to hide our compost piles.  The boxwood and redbud add interest.  Along the driveway a row of inkberry shields the electric fencing around an orchard.

A more typical use for hedges marks the boundary between neighbors for privacy or skirts a walkway to the front door.  In both cases plantings soften the lines that define the yard.   Hardscape block walls or paving for a patio becomes more friendly when combined with greenery.  Because evergreens keep their foliage year round, they can serve not only as a visual barrier but also one that protects a home or yard from strong, drying winds and the noise of traffic.

Photo: Acabashi

Although “good fences make good neighbors,” it’s useful to think about what we want to keep in as well as what we need to keep out with hedges.  A thorny barberry or a prickly mahonia can become all but impenetrable while well-maintained boxwoods or privets leave room for visitors to brush by or even squeeze through.  NOTE: Barberries, Mahonia and Privet are considered invasive although they can be useful in certain environments.  That’s a good reminder that hedges will require control or pruning, a subject we’ll address below.  Sometimes a municipality or homeowners association will have zoning or rules that regulate the height of any barrier and its distance from property lines.  Check before planting.

Abelia makes an informal hedge. Photo: Cathy Caldwell

Perhaps the first consideration for any hedge is its purpose.  The ideas here should only stir your creativity.  Some gardeners today are mixing natives with foreign varieties and even adding a topiary specimen for interest.  But before heading for the nursery, walk around your property to get an idea of such factors as exposure to sun and also wind, slope, and rain.  Take the time to send a soil sample to Virginia Tech in order to match specimens that are appropriate for your place and to know what soil amendments will improve results.  These issues will control your choice of plants, how well they prosper, and the amount of maintenance required.   Other practical matters are whether you want a more natural or formal appearance, and the amount of time and/or money you can expend.  Typically, shrubbery and trees require several years to attain the look you want, so noting their growth rate becomes a consideration.   If a move is likely in five years, scale your landscape plan with that time frame in mind.

More Imaginative Hedges


Betty Mongomery: Pearl Fryars Inspirational Topiary Garden

No matter the scope of your garden and yard, there’s probably a cultivar or variety the right size for your needs.  A small parterre may use dwarf boxwoods or lavender to outline sections for herbs in the same way a large arboretum uses euonymus or roses along its paths.  Flowers on a holly or boxwood are small and will normally be a non-factor.  On the other hand, the blossoms on a viburnum bring welcome color toward the end of a hot summer.  The dependable and deep green of a Foster holly or yew supplies a nice backdrop  to bring out your display of annual flowers.

Earlier we mentioned the softening effect of greenery.  A hedge combined with a low wall takes the edge off masonry.  Sharp corners of any kind are eased both for the eye and for whoever uses the lawn mower when a hedge is planted with gentle curves that define the intersection of two lots with a street.

The very blandness of a hedge will take the mind’s eye unconsciously toward a focal point of interest, a particular drift of colorful annuals, an architectural feature or a specimen tree.  On the other hand there’s no reason why a hedge must be devoid of interest in itself.  Different shades of green, textures,and even different species in a less formal hedge are worth considering.  Layering various sizes not only shields a yard, but also makes a display in itself. For those with a more imaginative turn of mind, sculpted hedges are a possibility.


This brings us to the important question of maintenance.  From start to finish, planning produces good results.  It’s well to ask yourself how much time and/or money will be expended for care every year in order to get the desired effect.  Maintaining topiary and formal hedges will take work.  Unlike vegetable gardening, producing a hedge is a long-term  investment over years.  A dwarf plant variety that’s left to grow more naturally will take less care than a carefully shaped formal hedge.  If flowers are a feature of the shrub you want to use, you will need to time the pruning to the season that allows buds to best develop for that particular species.  For example, azaleas should be pruned by mid- summer because they will flower on the new growth that begins soon thereafter.

Here are some important pruning tips:

  • As soon as the plants are established, we prune more severely if we want to encourage leafy growth all the way to the ground. 
  • The top of a more formal hedge needs to be slightly more narrow than it is at the bottom, allowing sunshine to nurture those lower branches, thus hiding the root and stem.
  •  As the hedge matures, it’s important to prune so as to leave some greenery on every branch that extends to the outside.
  • Remember, the more formal you want your hedge to appear, the more frequent pruning will be required.

Here’s an outline of decision-making:

  1. Decide whether you will use deciduous or evergreens for your  particular purpose.
  2. Consider the height and spread you want.  Some find it helpful to set up a stepladder in the proposed hedgeline in order to get a clear idea of  where the sight-line will stop.  Do you want to be able to see across the top?
  3. Select your plants with your soil analysis close at hand, keeping in mind their nutrient and soil requirements as well as both height and width.
  4. Lay out the design on the ground with pegs and string, making as many curves as you desire.  This step lets you better imagine how sharp the curves can be relative to the ultimate size of the species.  Mark the space for each plant, leaving room for roots to spread and crowns to mature over time in order to reach the desired result.
  5. Dig holes twice the width of the plant and to a depth that will place the new soil line where it was in the nursery.

Selection of Plants

While almost any shrub or small tree can be used to make a hedge, here are notes on some possibilities; and see the article listed below for problem-free shrubs.


Boxwoods show up often in the Piedmont because they prosper in sun or shade and adapt to pruning.  However, they need loose, well-drained soil for their shallow roots.  Read nursery tags carefully for mature size, conditions and characteristics of the many kinds available.

Barberries come with thorns in different species, sizes and shades of color.  William Penn (Berberis x gladwynensis) grows in sun or partial shade, 3-4′ high and 3-5′ wide; deer and drought resistant.  Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is deciduous and offers color in fall.  Remember the comment about invasives above.

Hollies include our native tree, the American holly (Ilex opaca) Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) can be found in different sizes.  Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is hardy and deer resistant; grows in wet or day soils and accepts a range of pH.

Mahonia or Oregon grape has tough, spiny leaves and can be invasive.  The Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia bealei) grows 5×5′ and resists nibbling deer; produces small yellow flowers and attractive blue fruit; does best in shade.

Yews are easily shaped for more formal presentations and come in many varieties.  They are attractive to deer.  Taxus media ‘Densiformis’ grows 4×6′ in moist soil.

Informal hedge. Photo: Cathy Caldwell


Azalea or Rhododendron come as either evergreen or deciduous and in many varieties and colors although deciduous azaleas will often retain leaves that darken into the fall.  Rhododendron catawbiense or Catawba hybrids are recommended for our area.

Forsythia’s yellow flowers announce spring and are one of the toughest shrubs I’ve encountered.  Gold Tide (Forsythia courtasol) is one variety that grows only 1 x 4′ and tolerates deer, clay soils, and black walnut, as do many other forsythia.

Fothergilla flowers summer and fall.  Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) grows 1.5 x 4′ in full sun or partial shade, but not so well in heavy soils.  Leaves color in fall.

Hydrangea can be spectacularly showy.  Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) likes moist, well-drained soils in sun or partial shade to produce large, pyramidal white blossoms, spreading to 4 x 4 ‘.

Privet hedges can be fiercely invasive, the price it exacts for their incredible hardiness.  Fast-growing and inexpensive, but can become leggy.

Viburnums exist in a great range of sizes and shapes.  Leatherleaf Viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum) tolerates our clay and grows 15 x 15′ with large, course leaves and white flowers in late summer.


Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs (Michael Dirr, 1997)

Shrub Pruning Calendar,” Va.Coop.Ext. Pub.No.430/430-462

“Shrubs: Functions, Planting, and Maintenance | VCE Publications,”  Va.Coop.Ext. Pub.No.426-701

“Problem-free Shrubs for Virginia Landscapes,” Va.Coop.Ext.Pub.No.450-236.pdf




  1. Susan Martin

    This is such a helpful article and a great reference for anyone considering a hedge. Plus, you are THE example of a good neighbor! Just one comment on oakleaf hydrangea: it is very attractive to our neighborhood deer. On Rutgers’ listing of deer resistance, the shrub is rated “occasionally severely damaged.” Occasionally for us has been every year.

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