Decorative hedge

Hedges and hedgerows can serve a number of purposes, including being decorative features in the yard.

We have always wanted to define the edges of our properties, to have boundaries. Hedges work for this, as well as fences. Hedges historically also keep livestock in place, they serve as windbreaks, they serve as a living garden element, and they can provide food and shelter for birds.

Hedges, and their cousins, hedgerows, can be a valuable landscape design feature for large and small yards. A hedge is defined as a green, living fence. A hedgerow is similar, but often involves another part, such as a gate or a fence, and is usually made up of different species of trees and shrubs, while a hedge is frequently just one type of plant.

Hedgerows came up on their own a lot, as birds perched on a fence, and “planted” the seeds and berries they’d been eating. At first, hedges were rather accidental — just strips of woodland left after the early farmers cleared their fields, but they have evolved.

Should you choose a hedge or a fence? And why?

  • Geography — think of the stone walls in New England, using the stones found in their soil;
  • Aesthetics — either can be very pretty;
  • Property lines — hedges can curve, if needed;
  • Time — fences go up much more quickly than a hedge;
  •  Environment — A hedge is a natural barrier, unlike many modern fences, which are frequently made of plastic or chemically-treated wood;
  • Maintenance — either can be low-maintenance, depending on your materials;
  • Safety — if you need to keep small children or pets securely inside your yard, a solid fence is a more reliable barrier. This is also true for enclosures around swimming pools;
  • Security — a hedge made of plants with thorns, such as hawthorn, hollies or pyracantha, can form a dense barrier and discourage intruders;
  • Pest deterrent — deer and rodents might be excluded from your yard by a fence. On the other hand, some other creatures, such as birds, like the natural habitat that a hedge can provide.

Hedges and hedgerows can be large or small, depending on the room you have available, and the purpose they need to serve. A row of arborvitae “Green Giants” is common and very pretty, but they do get 50 feet tall and 12 feet wide. “Emerald Green,” however, only gets to about 10 feet tall and 3 feet wide — much more suited to a smaller yard. Both prefer full sun.

Hazelnut and buttonbush are lovely medium to large shrubs that are great for a hedge, too. For full sun, the addition of a small tree or two, such as a sweetbay magnolia, a hawthorn or a chokeberry pruned up into a tree form, will add visual interest and environmental functionality as you add layers. Fothergillas and sweet ferns are great for a smaller hedge — both are in the 3- to 5-foot range.

In shade, try some hollies; inkberry stays smaller, at 4 to 5 feet. The winterberry hollies aren’t evergreen, but the females have wonderful ornamental berries. They range from 3 to 10 feet, depending on which you get.

It’s still a great time to plant — the soil is warm, and the weather isn’t bad. You can start planting your hedge now, if you want. Or, you could spend this winter thinking and planning your beautiful yard, checking with your local independent garden center, which will give you the best advice, rather than the big-box stores. This way, you’ll be all ready to go come spring.