There’s an old saying: “Good fences make good neighbors,” and the same applies to hedges.
Hedges have a variety of uses, practical and ornamental. These days, you’re more likely to hear the word “hedge fund” than hedge-as-in-landscaping “hedge,” and that’s kind of sad. It’s not that hedges are out of fashion, but many people seem to consider them more functional rather than fun.
Hedges have been part of the landscape since the far distant past, especially in England:
“Before farming, when people were hunter-gatherers, the only hedgerows were dead hedges, made of thorns and sharpened branches for protection against attack. But the hedgerow's use as a boundary marker goes back as far as 1000 BC. The first Bronze Age farmers had to clear woodland to make fields...
There was no organised (sic) planting of hedges in England until the first stage of the enclosure movement in the 13th century. This was where landowners started taking over common land, dividing it up with hedges. The splitting up of open medieval fields reached its peak with the Enclosure Acts passed by Parliament, mainly between 1720-1840. This resulted in a huge spurt of planting hedges (about 200,000 miles of hedgerows) and led to the landscape being dividing into smaller fields.” 1
England is still a checkerboard of hedges, ancient and modern, and it is no surprise that the tradition traveled to the New World. Hedges have long been a part of the American landscape, but they aren’t associated with this country as much as England. For one thing, in many parts of the U.S., suitable hedge plants did not grow in abundance. In those areas, fences of wood, wire and barbed-wire gradually became the standard. Although the popularity of living hedges has waxed and waned over the years, they’ve never truly gone out of fashion.
Many homeowners prefer the “friendlier” look of a hedge to the harder lines of a fence. As with fences, hedges can be chosen to fit the homeowner’s preferences. Tall or short, fast-growing or slow, barrier or backdrop – there is a wealth of plants to choose from that will suit those requirements. While hedges are commonly used to separate properties, for privacy or to disguise a less-than-perfect view, they can also be used to edge a path, to accentuate a vista or to break up a large yard into different sections.
But hedges aren’t just about practicality. Hedges can be trimmed as topiary, they can be planted as the framework for a knot garden or to contain an herb garden, and they have long been used to outline the pathways in maze-puzzles. In England, close to 100 mazes are open to the public, and they have become popular in the Unites States, too – you can find one at the Morton Arboretum in Illinois.
Boxwood, arborvitae, privet and yew are all popular plants for hedges, but any number of plants can be used for this purpose, including holly, barberry, juniper, spirea, viburnum, ‘Miss Kim’ lilac, St. John’s wort, forsythia, hazelnut, Cornus mas, pine, baldcypress, cotoneaster, burning bush, alpine currant, purpleosier willow, buckthorn, lonicera, common ninebark and Siberian peashrub are just a few of the many plants that can be used for hedging. For low hedges – say, to outline an herb garden - boxwood is the most commonly used shrub, but perennials can act as dividers, too: nepeta, artemisia, lavender, even low-growing grasses.
Be creative with hedges – the old reliable evergreen hedge plants have their place, but try deciduous plants, too, and trees that take shearing well. Whether you are planting a functional hedge or an intricate maze, you’re following in the footsteps of ancient gardeners. Don’t think of it as a plain-and-simple hedge – think of it as planting a bit of history.
In my yard, I have a hedge of yews. In other houses I've grown privet hedges and less formal compact viburnum hedges. What plants have you used in hedges?
1 “History of the Hedge,” Icons: A Portrait of England,