Friday, 24 September 2010

Low maintenance friendly hedges


All my gardening life I have never understood the concept of having a privet hedge, but its popularity tells a different story.
I had the benefit of a five year gardening apprenticeship, (most likely quite rare today) combined with being transferred to different squads all round Dundee to give us a wide range of experiences. Our training instructor, Walter Gilmour, still fondly remembered by many Dundee gardeners was very keen on visiting other gardens, horticultural research stations, nurseries and botanical gardens all over Scotland. This increased our knowledge of plants and how others use them. Hedges were created from numerous plants both dwarf and tall, evergreen and deciduous and with both low and high maintenance.
Many examples were seen of fantastic skills with the hand shears where straight lines, angles, curves and other shapes were meticulously maintained. No leaf was allowed to step out of its allotted space. This was old fashioned horticultural discipline at its best.
Today we have mechanical hedge trimmers with staff on bonus and often the tasks are put out to contract so hedges become functional, cheaper to look after but seldom a work of art to look at.
Hedge cutting in the Parks Dept. in the sixties was a huge task to keep labour employed during the winter as many ornamental open spaces were filled with a wide variety of shrubs all of which received the bog standard haircut of flat tops, square sides or maybe cut into a round ball. It did not matter if it was a flowering shrub, evergreen or conifer.
My lesson for life was that in my garden, I would never ever plant a hedge that needed pruning.

The need for a hedge

It is quite normal to want to define your property garden boundary with a hedge, or separate the ornamental areas from the vegetable patch, or maybe hide the compost heap somewhere.
Hedges can also be used to give shelter from winds, to create an impenetrable barrier to keep animals in or for privacy in the garden or around the patio and barbecue areas.
The height of a hedge should be governed by your own personal need as well as others if they are likely to be affected. Hedges can be very tall, the beech hedge at Meikleour or quite dwarf where box edging is often used around herb gardens, and the range of plants used can be enormous. Some require constant clipping to keep them in shape and control their size whereas others will do the same function without the need for continual pruning as long as it is acceptable to have a more ornamental appearance.

High maintenance hedges

Privet is still the most widely used but more likely because people don't know what else to use and it is very cheap. Golden privet has a better colour and the lack of chlorophyll holds back its growth. Lonicera nitida is very popular, easy to prune and shape and not too vigorous. Beech is deciduous, but often retains its leaves into winter. It can be kept at any height. Leyland cypress is cheap, fast, evergreen and can make a good solid hedge if kept under control, but has lost its credibility through abuse from those who plant it and let it run wild in urban areas to the extreme anxiety of neighbours. More on this one later.
It is quite possible to create an environmentally and neighbour friendly hedge that is both functional and ornamental and requires little pruning.

Low maintenance hedges

Berberis comes in many forms and sizes and being spiky makes an attractive barrier, many of which are evergreen and Berberis darwinnii has brilliant orange flowers in spring.
Shrub roses come in all sizes are can have scented flowers all summer. Philadelphus is quite tall but is very majestic in spring with white scented blossoms. Lonicera Baggesons Gold grows up to five feet and is quite spectacular all year round. Its dense foliage gives great shelter to small birds and it does not need to be pruned.
Saskatoons, can make a perfect hedge and give a show of white flowers in spring followed by a crop of edible berries in summer for picking or as food for local birds. It can be grown to any height up to twelve feet with minimalistic pruning.
For a low hedge Fuchsia Mrs Popple will grow to four feet and although deciduous it is a mass of flowers all summer. However every so often when we get a very cold winter it gets cut down to ground level, but nearly always grows again the following year.
Lavender is quite popular for a really low hedge with scented foliage and purple summer flowers.
For a conifer hedge the dwarf pine, Pinus mugo, or slightly taller Pinus strobus nana both look natural if left to grow unpruned.
Many other shrubs including Escallonia, rhododendrons and camelias, etc. can be used for hedging. Select according to height needs and plant closer together to establish a close nit hedge or line of ornamental shrubs.

Problem hedges

Where shelter or privacy needs require a tall boundary screen always give thought to adjacent neighbours who may be affected. Your paradise could be their nightmare.
My first experience was with a friendly neighbour in Darlington, knowing I had a fair bit of knowledge asked me if I could help him to identify this plant growing in the middle of his new greenhouse. It was a shoot of my very vigorous ornamental bamboo hedge Arundinaria anceps that can grow immense and I had planted a fair distance from his garden not realising it liked space to grow. It promptly got the chop, and I lost my supply of garden canes, but kept my friendly neighbour.
Problems arise when hedges are allowed to grow without any thoughts on their nuisance effect. Are they blocking some-ones view, or obstructing paths, visual access along footpaths and highways, growing over another's property, blocking light to windows, blocking drains, (poplars and willow can do this) or shedding leaves into another garden or roof gutters.
Encroaching roots can also do considerable damage interfering with underground service pipes and cables, competing with garden plants for moisture and nutrients and in times of drought add to the moisture loss levels causing clay and peaty soils to shrink. When rain follows the resultant heave can damage walls and older buildings which may not have adequate foundations.
Leyland cypress can also drop limbs in heavy winds endangering people and property.
People trying to sell property next to a hedge problem can suffer a significant loss in value.
In England there are positive signs that legislation is helping to end the misery caused by overgrown hedges, but at present in Scotland the law provides no protection to sufferers.
A campaign run by Scothedge is behind a proposal for legislation in Scotland to develop guidelines on hedges backed with last resort enforceable arbitration. The problem is currently under consideration and meanwhile anyone in need of support can get advice from Pamala by email at


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