Creating your own elegant hedge

Casual or formal, a lush hedge has an elegant beauty that no fence can match.

When I check my computer’s dictionary for the definition of hedge, it didn’t mention anything living or green. It did list, in this order: evade, enclose, prevaricate, circumvent, get around, be cautious, beat around the bush. Of course the dictionary is American, which may explain its fixation with synonyms for sneaky as opposed to the lush, elegant, gorgeous, romantic thing that is, in my book, a hedge.

A few years ago, most people would have gone for a smart plaster wall or a funky fence rather than a hedge. But times have changed and hedges are making a comeback, possibly for their ability to add romance, colour, fragrance, texture and mystery to the landscape – none of which you get to the same extent with a fence.

The transition will be a gradual one, of course, since hedges are not something you can throw up in a day. It’s really the only thing they don’t have over walls and fences – they’re not as rapid as construction, and throwing money at them doesn’t get them up any faster.

In fact, one of the lovely things about planting a hedge is that you’re better off to buy smaller – therefore cheaper – plants, because they establish quickly and often outgrow the taller specimens. Even more important, you can train small plants to grow into dense, compact hedges, while bigger plants may be inclined to be gangly and open.

Step one, whether you’re planting something new or replacing a fence, is to decide whether you want something classic and formal, or casual and carefree. The style you choose will, to a degree, dictate the type of plants you use. As with any gardening, you need to choose plants suited to the conditions.

Nowhere is bad plant choice more obvious than in a hedge. If a sole camellia in the middle of your lawn dies nobody will really notice, but one dead hedge plant in a line of 20 is obvious to everyone. So be prepared to spend a little more and get good quality plants. Bargain bin specials will not do the business in this case.

Map out and prepare the hedge line. If you want it straight and formal, with sharp, right angle corners, you’ll need a string or chalk line and an eye for precision.

If casual is your style you can have a huge amount of fun. Offset your plants, or plant in clumps or triangles. You can mix and match plant types too, although it pays to choose plants that require the same kind of care and maintenance to minimise the workload later. Don’t forget that hedge plants grow out as well as up, and if you miscalculate you may obliterate your path instead of edging it. Leave space.

Set your plants out along one side of the string line with the correct spacing between them, and then plant as you would any tree or shrub. Check the planting depth with a stake – plants placed too deep or not deep enough will not establish well and you don’t want to be making replacements right from the get-go.

Make sure the soil is friable, add compost and water, and plant. Water and stake them if necessary, and keep them watered during dry periods for up to a year. Feed and mulch as you would other plants.  Hedges need feeding just as much as the rest of your garden. Once they’ve got a good start you can start training them to be dense and compact.

Tempting though it is to let them race skyward, you really need to bite the bullet and trim them. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a hedge that is open and straggly. Whack a third off the tops as soon as they start to grow, and do the same the following year. Then reduce the amount you are cutting back by until they’re as tall as you want.

Formal hedges need to be trimmed in early summer or autumn, and sometimes both, to keep them neat. Batter the hedge so the top is slightly narrower than the base. This lets light to get to the bottom of the hedge, which might otherwise become straggly and open.

If you want that absolutely perfect look you’ll need a bit of gear, including a plumb line, a plywood template, a selection of clippers and a scaffold. Leaning a ladder up against the hedge to cut it pushes it out of shape as you cut.

Tempting, then, to go for the informal look, which doesn’t need nearly as much attention. However you will still need to keep it tidy and remove any dead or damaged wood, and delinquent branches that are spoiling the shape. The nice thing about an informal hedge is that you can create indentations and pockets in which to tuck a piece of garden art, or a private garden seat where you can hide with a book.

Hedge plants

The most popular hedge plants are popular for a reason, so if you want something that’s sure to rise, and that will behave itself for years to come, choose one of the top 10 (I’m not sure whose top 10, but somebody who, hopefully, knows what they’re talking about).

For formal hedges

Photinia, matipo, lemonwood, holly, camellia, ngaio, corokia, coprosma, griselinia, abelia.

*For informal hedges

*Viburnum, ribbonwood, olearia, hebe, forsythia, camellia, acmena, port wine magnolia, escallonia, choisya. For a sustainable hedge with fruit to eat, consider avocado, feijoa and Chilean guava.

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