Gardening: Redesigning a hedge

submitted to the banner/laetitia sands
Native plants can be added around the base, or the end, of a hedge to give it more color and curb appeal. Here, one can see white hibiscus, black-eyed susans, sunflowers, iris and others.

A friend of mine wants to pull out her ailing Leyland cypress hedge and put in something new. She’s thinking of knockout roses, she told me, and wants to know my opinion.
When designing a hedge, it’s important to take into account the surroundings. My friend lives in a town and wants privacy from her neighbors. Her yard, which measures about 100 by 100 feet, includes a vegetable patch, shrubs, about six trees, a compost heap and lawn. How tall should the new hedge be? How wide?
What about the soil? Does it contain the nutrients the new plants require, or have the cypresses depleted the soil to the point where manure, compost and the like should be added to make it palatable to the new hedge?
The plan should be: 1) Find out what sort of soil the newcomers like, 2) Get the soil in the hedge area tested to determine if it will suit them, 3) If not, improve the soil by adding the missing ingredients or entirely new soil. After all, one wouldn’t invite guests to dinner, then serve them something they hated or were allergic to. Plants can’t leave their food on the plate. If they dislike it, they do poorly forever or they die.
Personally, I favor native plants for a hedge. They require less care and tolerate the local climate – and often poor soil – better than traditional garden plants. They also appeal to wildlife and pollinators. Who doesn’t enjoy watching hummingbirds, cardinals, chickadees, butterflies and other creatures visiting the garden? (Especially the cats. My friend has two.)
But I get the impression my friend has her heart set on knockout roses. So, what are the pro’s and con’s?
A footnote: If you’re frugal, this is the time to buy roses and other plants because, as fall approaches, plants go on sale. Fall is also the ideal time to plant or transplant.
To make a hedge, knockout roses should be planted three to four feet apart, I learned at a garden center in Easton, where they were on sale last week. Three feet tall now, they’re fast growers and should reach five feet by next summer. They’ll flower for most of the summer. But what about the other nine months, particularly the six months when they’ll have few or no leaves?
What about pests and diseases? Although more resistant than most roses, knockouts will catch typical rose ailments, like black spot (a fungus), just not as severely as do other types of rose. But if you plant an array of plants in a hedge, as opposed to all the same thing, you have less chance of ending up with a whole hedge that’s sick or dead.
Fragrance? To me a rose that smells of nothing – as is the case with many modern ones – is like a song sung without music: Impressive, but with something missing. Only the yellow and white knockout roses at the garden center smelled fragrant enough to make me think I might want to spring for one myself.
From a practical point of view, a hedge should contain at least some evergreen shrubs so that when winter comes, one sees some color. Also, unless you’re intent on seeing what’s going on next door, it’s advisable to include evergreen plants to create a year-round screen.
Having made my case against a purely knockout rose hedge, what would I put in a hedge made of native shrubs? How about wax myrtle (morella cerifera), an evergreen which produces pale blue berries and has leaves that release a most delicious scent if crushed between ones fingers? Berries are a great plus in fall and winter. They look lovely and they feed the birds.
Wax myrtle, also known as southern bayberry, can grow quite tall but does not mind being pruned. It has a precious ability, shared by some other plants, such as legumes, to “fix” nitrogen in the soil. This means it will improve the soil it grows in.
More advantages: The shrub not only tolerates drought, but grows well in wet areas. It attracts a wide range of birds, including eastern bluebirds and lovely singers (even without music) such as meadowlarks and yellow-rumped warblers.
Another excellent evergreen, recommended by Diane Miller of the wetland nursery Environmental Concern, is inkberry (ilex glabra). This shrub grows six to 12 feet tall, flowers in late spring and produces black berries, eaten by a host of birds. Like wax myrtle, inkberry doesn’t mind having wet feet. A planting guide published by EC describes it as “fairly insensitive to disease and insect damage.”
Red chokeberry (aronia arbutifolia), which reaches the same height as inkberry but loses its leaves in winter, is another good candidate for a hedge. Its red berries last from early September through mid-December and appeal to many birds and small mammals. EC notes that the fruit serves as “emergency food in winter to many species.”
Black chokeberry (aronia melanocarpa) is not to be sneezed at either. I have one. Officially, it’s said to reach a height and width of six feet, but mine is taller. The shrub’s leaves turn attractive colors in fall and its berries, if you can harvest them before the birds do, can be made into syrup and jam. The fruit is high in Vitamin C and healthy anti-oxidants.
Speaking of edibles, my friend could add a highbush blueberry or three to her hedge. To get fruit, one must plant at least two. The shrub attracts butterflies, produces lovely yellow and red fall color, grows up to 12 feet tall and its berries appeal to birds, as well as human beings.
Personally, my absolute favorites for a hedge are red-osier dogwood (cornus sericea), whose red stems delight the eyes in winter, and elderberry (sambucus canadensis), which appeals to birds and butterflies and produces flowers and fruit that can be made into tea, wine and jam. Particularly when seen from a distance, elderberry’s huge white flower heads are magnificent.
For fragrance, consider adding sweet pepperbush (clethra alnifolia) and common spicebush (benzoin aestivale) to a hedge. If you still hanker after roses, why not plant a swamp rose? It grows eight feet tall, produces pink roses in summer and red berries in winter. (I might also buy one yellow knockout rose bush, just to see how it does….)
In the meantime, happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.


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