Nature’s Alternatives to Fences and Sound Barriers
Jan. 21, 2023midnight
Here’s an idea for a spring project in your garden: Replace those worn-out fence posts or that chainlike eyesore with a lush hedge of forsythia or yew. Perhaps you live in a community where the covenants prohibit fences; but I bet they don’t prohibit shrubs! And as hedges, what can those shrubs be trained to do? They can gracefully delineate the borders of your flower beds and the boundaries of your property. Carefully pruned, hedges can deter intruders, muffle noise, deflect prying eyes, and protect your garden and patio from prevailing winds. Now that’s a pretty impressive list of uses for a hedge!
Whether you’re a do-it-yourself gardener or you have a clever, reliable gardener or service, you’ll want to plan your Hedges Project keeping in mind some key factors. So, here they are:
Will your hedge be primarily decorative or purposeful? If decorative, then focus on color, fragrance, shape.
Color: You can choose shrubs that bloom, like the spring-gold of forsythia, or evergreens with variegated leaves, like the chartreuse-edged euonymus.
Fragrance: The sharp scent of boxwood deters bugs, planted beneath windows in colonial times to keep away flies and mosquitoes. However, witch-hazel provides a less pungent, woody scent to waft across your deck.
Shape: If your plan requires strongly delineated barriers, you’ll want to plant shrubs that take well to being pruned. Boxwood and privet are both old favorites for that very reason. You might even try your hand at a topiary shrub—perhaps an elegantly spiraling evergreen or a bunny or lab puppy. Flowering quince or azalea hedges will be looser, leggier, and lacy.
If you are adding a purposeful hedge for some specific use in your garden, that use may determine the type of shrubs you plant.
Flowerbed borders: If you want a simple, attractive edge for your flowerbeds, you may want to rely on pretty evergreen shrubs that will provide an attractive border for the beds even in the winter. Juniper is deer resistant, has attractive structure and berries. A fun alternative is the Tater Tot Arborvitae, small mounds of lacy green. They require little pruning to retain their shape.
Boundary borders: If you’re going to rely on the hedges to denote your property line, size and sturdiness will be important factors. Boxwood works well here too. It can be pruned to provide a substantial hedge, not easily broached. Yew is another option that provides a looser, less obvious border. A third option is a hedge of holly. Holly has the added feature of prickliness, which can deter hungry animals and curious kids from breaching the property boundaries.
Noise abatement: To muffle the sounds from a busy street or a neighbor’s boisterous children, you’ll want to encourage a hedge that is thick. Success here depends more on the pruning of your hedge than on the type of shrubs used. The hedge should be pruned so sunlight can reach the interior of the hedge. (More on this in the maintenance hints that follow.)
Privacy: The same characteristics that muffle noise will also protect your garden from prying eyes. You’ll want to encourage thick growth all the way through the hedge. Additionally, consider the height and width of the mature hedge. You’ll probably want a tall, perhaps 6’ hedge. The width may vary, but I’d recommend encouraging the growth at least 2’ deep. Almost any shrub can mature into a privacy hedge. Juniper is a lovely choice, or arborvitae grows quickly and remains lush looking all year.
Wind Break: If your garden is troubled by wind, a decorative hedge can help protect your more fragile plants. Here too, height is an important element. The Japanese holly is an interesting choice as is the stunning mountain laurel, with blossoms in the spring and green leaves all year.
Here are some general guidelines and hints for keeping those hedges growing happily and looking good, whether you’re doing the gardening or advising your gardener.
Spacing new plants: If you’re starting from scratch, a trench is the most foolproof way to start an attractive hedge. The planting trench should be about 12” wider than the root balls of the shrubs, and about the same depth as their root balls. Plant shrubs about 36” apart.
Soil: Well composted, loose soil will be most welcoming to your new shrubs.
Watering: As with most new plants, be generous in your watering for the first year. The trench will help maintain moist soil conditions for the new root system’s development. Mature hedges are usually drought resistant.
Trimming: Begin pruning soon after the shrubs begin to grow. Try to keep in mind the end-result, the way you want the hedge to look when mature. Trim the new growth that doesn’t conform to the ultimate shape of the mature hedge.
Be sure to keep your hedge clippers sharp and clean. You don’t want to introduce any bacteria among these young plants—or the mature ones for that matter. Lay a tarp or old sheet beneath the shrubs before you begin pruning. Then, whisk away the small cuttings for a tidy, finished look
Shaping: Most hedges grow 1’ to 2’ per year. The upper portion of the hedge should be slightly narrower than the lower portion. Think of a cone rather than a funnel. This will allow sunlight and moisture to reach the inner branches of the hedge, keeping the appearance lush and thick.
If the outside of the hedge is too thick, cut back random branches deep in the hedge, encouraging the inner branches to spread and grow toward the light. The “3-year Rule”: To keep your hedge healthy, each year rejuvenate the growth by removing 1/3 of the thickest stems toward the base of each plant. In 3 years, your hedge will be all young and healthy new growth.
Finally, as with all our gardening adventures, don’t be too wedded to one vision for your new hedges. I find my plants sometimes have their own ideas as to how they should grow and look. Embrace that. Watch your hedges as they mature and encourage them in what they do best. If there’s a break in your hedge where you didn’t want one, plant an interesting vine or flower to fill in the space and add interest to your hedge. Then, next fall, you can add a new shrub and let it fill in hole in the mature hedge.
There is a debate among forsythia fans. Should it be allowed to be wild and leggy, or pruned into a neat hedge?
I never knew that about boxwoods. They deter insects. No wonder there are so many boxwood shrubs around town.
What a great article! I love the picture of the forsythia. Too bad it doesn’t bloom for long. A lot of good advice.