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Nature's fences: Hedges offer beauty, privacy, protection

By Josette Keelor - jkeelor@nvdaily.com

A boxwood hedge lines a walkway at Glen Burnie Gardens in Winchester. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Bryan Shepherd, assistant manager of the gardens and grounds at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, trims a Hicks yew hedge. Dennis Grundman/Daily

A flowering deciduous shrub called "The Rose of Sharon" blooms at Glen Burnie Gardens at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. Dennis Grundman/Daily

A walkway in the garden of Mary Beth Wood's Winchester home is bordered by green velvet boxwoods and hydrangeas. Dennis Grundman/Daily

A bench and capitata yew hedges are shown across the driveway from Wood's home. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Looking for something different to do with your garden for next season? A hedge might be just the thing.

"Hedges are quite useful ... for privacy, to look pretty ... it's like a picture frame to frame your flowers," says JoAnn Larsen, of Winchester. "It also protects [the garden] against too much wind."

Hedges take a lot of work, she says, but for someone who devotes a lot of time to the garden anyway, they can be very rewarding. While other plants fade and die in the fall, hedges, ever green, offer color year-round.

"[They are] kind of the bones of the garden ... kind of are the strong part of the garden," Larsen says.

Hedges have been used for hundreds of years around the world for various reasons. Although they are not as commonly used today, especially in the U.S., they can still offer interest and usefulness throughout a garden.

Those interested in beginning will want to start soon.

"It's actually better to plant in the fall," says Mary Stickley, manager of gardens and grounds at Glen Burnie Gardens at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester. "Roots are better established to take off in the spring."

There are exceptions, though.

Broadleaf evergreens suffer weather damage in the winter, so she says it's better to plant them in the spring.

Mary Beth Wood, an amateur gardener who grows extensive hedges in her garden at her home in Winchester, recommends planting English beech in the spring as well.

"That's deciduous, but it holds onto most of its leaves in the winter," Wood says.

"Proper watering, good food" is what Stickley suggests to build a healthy hedge. "We use a slow-release organic fertilizer." If you're going to do it properly, do a soil test to see what fertilizer you will need, she says.

"We chose what would grow here and forms that we liked," says Wood. "We've got real alkaline soil in general," which seems to work for her hedges, though she says holly and some other plants in her yard are supposed to like acidic soil.

When planting hedges plant them deep enough that the root ball is completely covered, Wood says, quoting the old adage of digging a hole of 2 feet for every 1 foot of plant.

Dig a generous hole and use fertilizer, she says, "otherwise it has to fight that compact soil," she says.

"You want different plant material ... so if something gets it you're entire garden is not wiped out," Wood says, cautioning against plant diseases and pests.

Many people think of a hedge as being squared off, but any line of trees can form a hedge, Wood says.

"I don't think it has to be formed, it's just a barrier, a continuous barrier of plant material," says Wood, who has decked out the yard of her suburban home with a collection of garden rooms as far as the eye can see with the help of horticulturist Nicole Siess, of Landesigns LLC in Gainesville.

The best way to start is to think about how you want your yard to look -- and start small.

"There are a number of things you can make hedges out of," says Stickley.

Leyland cypress, boxwood and yew make up a majority of the hedges adorning the grounds at Glen Burnie.

"Leyland cypress can get [up to] 30 or 40 feet," Stickley says.

Boxwoods can also grow very tall.

"They want to be 20 feel tall, but we want them to be 5 or 6," she says. "They keep us on our toes."

To form a solid hedge, plant the trees only a foot or so from each other.

"That's what makes a very dense hedge," says Wood. "Of course, I wanted an English-style garden." That style requires the trees to sit very close to one another, she says.

"When we put those Leyland cypress in back ... [the gardeners] said in a few years we'd have to take every other one out." She didn't, though. All the trees are still there and have formed a wall across the back of her yard. "The Leyland cypress grows so quickly and forms a very dense hedge," she says.

Another tree lining the back of her yard is arborvitae.

"This grows quickly and they get trimmed every few years at the top," she says. The tree was perfect for what she wanted in a 7hedge -- privacy from the houses that sprung up like weeds in the space behind her yard.

"All of a sudden they developed it into lots, and we needed privacy," she says. "They grow probably about 3 feet a year," she says of the Leylands. Now the hedge stands at about 20 feet.

Not all of the hedges, though, are meant to separate her yard from the neighbors.

"The yew is a very favorite hedging plant to use in England," she says, but they do not grow very quickly. Yew as well as English and green velvet boxwoods make up two short hedges -- parterres, which each stand at about 3 feet tall.

Ivy is another plant used in hedges.

"This ivy is growing on a fence, but it will form a hedge," she says.

American boxwood, green mountain boxwood, lilac, capitata, holly and hemlock are other trees used as hedges around her yard.

Though hemlock does well in this area, she cautions not to plant it east of the Blue Ridge because of a pest more common in Loudoun and Fauquier counties that will decimate the hedge.

However you want your hedges to look, trimming is very important to its continuity and appearance.

"You always do boxwoods by hand," Stickley says. "Most of ours in our garden are shaped. When shaping a tall hedge, make sure the bottom is slightly wider than the top, so the hedge has access to sunlight all around.

Stickley stresses the importance of trimming hedges at the right time of year for the plant. Shaping a Rose of Sharon hedge during the spring and summer, for instance, is a bad idea, because the flowers will be shorn from the outside. It's best to trim those back in the fall or early spring.

Most other hedges can be trimmed throughout the season.

"You can prune any time of year except starting in July, beginning of August," she says. Pruning during mid-summer removes hormones from the branches, triggering growth, she says. New growth does not have time to harden off before winter, which will damage the hedge when the weather turns cold. In general, it's best not to prune between late July and early December.

"We actually do a lot of ours in the wintertime," she says. "When you do trimming, you're going to get a whole lot of growth in the spring," she says.

Other than boxwoods, most hedges can be trimmed with electric hedge clippers, but Larsen trims all of her hedges by hand, herself.

"I do it by hand, because you have to do it by hand -- it doesn't look as good if you do it with electric clippers," she says. She trims her hedges in the spring and again in the fall.

It takes her six hours a day for eight days to trim only the boxwoods, but to her it's worth the time.

"It all takes time, all gardening takes time," Larsen says.

Most important, though, is watering, Wood says, especially if the hedge is large and is near other trees.

"Boxwoods don't want as much water as, say, arborvitae," she says, but in general you cannot water hedges enough.

"I don't think you could over water Leyland cypress," she says.

Books about hedges

• "Fences and Hedges: And Other Garden Dividers" By Richard Bird and Stephen Robson, 1999 Stewart, Tabori and Chang ISBN: 1-55670-836-X

• "Living Fences: A Gardener's Guide to Hedges, Vines & Espaliers"
By Ogden Tanner, 1995
Chapters Publishing Ltd.
ISBN: 1-881527-67-O

• "A Small Garden Designer's Handbook"
By Roy Strong, 1987
Little, Brown and Co.
ISBN-10: 0316819778
ISBN-13: 978-0316819770
-- Source: Mary Beth Wood of Winchester


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