On The Cutting Hedge

THE REAL DIRT

July 11, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Robert Frost was right. Good fences make good neighbors, especially if the fence is green and alive. In other words, a hedge.

Many new homes come with postage-stamp lawns that afford little privacy. Some small yards feel like fishbowls. Planting a hedge on the edge of one's property is a subtle request for privacy. It is certainly a more neighborly gesture than the in-your-face construction of a chain-link fence.

A row of privet never started a feud.

A hedge is really a living fence, one that you prune instead of paint, and one that you feed instead of fix. Treat a hedge kindly and it might offer beautiful flowers and clusters of fruit. A barberry "fence" never rusts, it ripens.

Hedges offer homeowners all the advantages of man-made fences, and more. Hedges keep children inside a yard, and trespassers out. Who is foolish enough to try to breach a thorny pyracantha?

Hedges soften boundary lines, block ugly sights and filter out sounds. Moreover, a hedge smells better than a metal fence and attracts more songbirds than split rail, which may tempt a woodpecker or two.

A good hedge is always changing, and never boring. Man cannot duplicate a fence such as burning bush, which turns brilliant red in autumn.

"It's impossible to watch the seasons change in a stockade fence," says Jeffrey Whitehead, author of "The Hedge Book."

Mr. Whitehead, a landscaper and poet, sings the praises of the hedge which, he says, "promotes a visual peace. It is not an aggressive 'Keep Out.' "

Hedge plants come in all shapes and sizes, from soft-needled yews that can be trimmed to 1 foot, to 40-foot Canada hemlocks. (Certain trees make excellent hedges, says Mr. Whitehead, citing the towering European beech as one that can he sheared to stand only 4 feet tall. But this seems a cruel fate for such a majestic tree.)

There are hedge plants for sun (forsythia) and shade (mountain laurel); those that grow fast (arborvitae) and slow (boxwood); and those suited for formal hedges (Japanese holly) and graceful, informal ones (shrub rose).

Mr. Whitehead believes every plant except moss has probably been shaped into a hedge. He cites boxwood as "the last word on hedging. Any plant that can be clipped into the shape of a duck and still look good will certainly make a fine hedge."

I fell in love with boxwood, and with hedges, as a child, while exploring the deep green maze behind the Governor's Mansion in historic Williamsburg, Va. To me, that huge boxwood hedge was a marvelous labyrinth, though I'm sure it was viewed differently by the gardeners responsible for its upkeep.

Sadly, hedges have lost popularity in recent decades, probably because they are seen as high-maintenance plants. Fear of upkeep turns folks off. There are still many fine hedges around, but they are mostly aging specimens found around old homes. Nowadays, most people don't plant hedges, they inherit them.

The irony is, many hedge- plants require minimal care, no more than one afternoon's attention each year. Several varieties of viburnum, holly, hawthorn and barberry need only an annual haircut. Others, such as cotoneaster, the junipers and the sweet-smelling Russian-olive, with its distinct gray foliage, thrive dry soils and seldom need watering.

All hedge plants should be inspected routinely for insect damage and disease, as problems can spread quickly in such snug conditions.

Plant hedges in spring or fall. Autumn sales may offer hedge plants at bargain prices. Buy from a reputable nursery, as discount stores sometimes mislabel plant varieties. Uniformity is critical in a hedgerow. Who wants a line of pink flowering quinces with an orange one stuck in the middle?

Always plant a hedge inside a property line, allowing for future growth. Remember, neighbors can clip branches that grow on their side.

Trim hedges with winter in mind. Heavy snows will crush a flat-topped hedge more easily than one with a round or pointed crown.

Hedges must also be pruned so they are wider at the base than the top, allowing sunlight to bathe the bottom branches. Otherwise, says Mr. Whitehead, the hedges, particularly evergreens, lose their lower foliage. The results are grotesque:

"The trunks look like legs, as if the hedge is walking away in disgust to some forest where it can grow up with dignity."

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