Using Hedges and Screens

Long established as features of the British countryside and gardens, hedging forms an important element of the structure and character of the overall design. If your garden belongs to an older property, you may have been lucky enough to inherit an old hedge, with all its years of living history, but for most modern plots, if you want a hedge, you are going to have to plant it for yourself.

Although many are planted for practical purposes, there is no reason why they cannot combine being functional with providing an attractive feature – so it is worth choosing your plants carefully. While a hedge is certainly not a “quick-fix” in the way that putting up a fence can give you an instant screen, it will be with you for many years to come.

Choosing Your Plants

Much of the decision depends on the hedge’s intended function – whether, for instance, you are looking to create a strong barrier on your boundary, provide screening and privacy, cut out noise or give some shelter to the more tender plants you are growing.

Spiky plants such as Berberis, Pyracantha (fire-thorn) and Crataegus (hawthorn) make excellent boundary hedges, their sharp spines forming an impenetrable enough barrier to keep out most intruders – human or animal. On the other hand, for windswept plots, evergreen hedges offer good year-round wind-breaks and the shelter they provide can be invaluable where strong winds would otherwise scour and damage less hardy plants in the garden.

Yew (Taxus) is the traditional standby for this role, although the ready availability of Leyland cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii) has helped this plant become widespread – though not to everyone’s delight! Although leylandii hedges have had a bad press – and been the cause of innumerable disputes between neighbours – properly managed, few things beat them for fast, dense screening. They also make good noise screens and in our ever-more noisy world, this has become an increasingly common reason for planting a new hedge. Other plants which can help cut out external sounds include many of the various forms of willow – especially Salix fragilis and S. alba – both of which can be woven to form “living walls.”

Other points to consider when selecting your hedging plants include their eventual height, spread and speed of growth, how hardy they are and whether or not they will suit your type of soil.

Formal or Informal?

Unless the rest of the design of your garden dictates otherwise, whether you opt for stylised geometric perfection, or a less rigid look really comes down to personal taste and how much time you want to spend clipping and shaping it. If your hedge simply needs to provide shelter or screening, then either can provide adequate privacy or a perfectly good wind-break.

A formal hedge usually needs clipping twice a year to maintain it at its best – normally with a guide line or some kind of template being used to help make sure the shears or electric clippers keep to the desired shape. Mixing deciduous and evergreen plants – or different coloured foliage – can give a “mosaic” effect and make a formal hedge a little bit different, but if this appeals, it is important to try to match the speed of growth as closely as you can, or your hedge will get untidy very quickly. Typical formal hedge plants include box (Buxus), privet (Lingustrum) and beech (Fagus).

Plants for the informal hedge – the likes of Cotoneaster, Escallonia and Rosa rugosa – are well suited for cottage gardens and wilder or more natural-looking areas, although they too will benefit from being kept in trim. Practical and decorative, with careful selection of plants, these hedges can be awash with various fruits, flowers, colours and textures for much of the year, making them a particularly striking element in the overall landscape.

Whatever type of hedge you plant – and for whatever reason – even the most functional and utilitarian of them brings its own unique quality to both the sight and sound of the garden. While they may take a little bit of effort in the early days – and make ongoing demands for clipping, pruning and shaping – once established, they amply repay all the work involved and certainly add something quite special to any plot of land.