1. Border or barrier? Hedge plants form one thick unit, which can serve as a friendly green fence or a hard-working barrier that keeps out noise or bad views. A low hedge can separate areas in your yard or beautify your home’s foundation. “Some plants, like boxwood, stay low for an English garden effect such as you’d see in Charleston,” says Chris Culp, landscape designer at ArtisTree. “It’s a small, living wall that’s the most formal.”
An informal border, on the other hand, employs more than one species; the plants maintain their natural shapes so the hedge requires less pruning. Varying the plants will create interest in color and texture, but an informal hedge will not be compact or opaque. It will create a visual separation, but don’t expect it to eliminate a poor view or noise.
2. Choose small leaves. That way, the hedge will maintain a neater shape. And forget about flowering plants. Most of them, including bougainvillea and hibiscus, are sprawling, not compact, so they don’t make a good hedge. Not to mention that pruning destroys the flowers.
3. Don’t cut corners. That hedge will occupy a large space in your yard, so do it right the first time. “Too many people go for fast-growing, cheaper plants, but they can be high maintenance,” says Robert Davie of Robert Davie & Associates. “The more expensive, sophisticated ones may take longer to grow, but they create a thicker hedge that won’t easily succumb to the elements. One of the plants I really like is podocarpus. It has small leaves and makes a dense hedge but doesn’t take a lot of pruning, lasts for years and will survive our worst droughts.”
4. Think deep. If you want a thick windbreak or sound barrier, plant extra rows to fill in spaces more easily. Remember, the width of most hedge plantings will equal their height. Unless you choose a plant that’s very narrow, a six-foot-high hedge will end up being about six feet wide. Plan accordingly. Even if you’re planting just one row, Culp reminds us that plants shouldn’t be placed too near the home. “You want breathing room between the plants and the base of the house. So stay three feet away.”
5. Plan ahead for height. Know how high and how fast the plants will grow. Anything over six feet high will be a chore to trim. “Don’t wait until the hedge is 12 feet high before you realize you can’t maintain it,” says garden designer Richard Anderson.
6. Consider maintenance before you plant. A hedge requires more upkeep than freestanding plants. “A hedge is burdensome, and you don’t want to be a slave to the garden,” says Anderson. And it will need water and fertilizer. “In the drought, tons of hedges all around Sarasota were lost because people planted the wrong things in the wrong places or didn’t provide irrigation,” says Davie. And never plant the hedge on a berm. “It removes the roots from the water table,” Davie explains.
7. Avoid thorny problems. If you’re not worried about intruders, you probably don’t want a thorny hedge. As Richard Anderson says, “Why would you use bougainvillea, which is full of thorns? You have to work with it, too.” If security is an issue, use a chain-link fence with the hedge or other greenery to hide it.