A hedgerow in any form is a living wall—a beautiful, breathing structure that can rival steel in strength and stone in longevity. For centuries, hedgerows have been used to mark property lines, contain livestock, buffer wind and define and beautify the grounds of palaces and farmsteads alike. Today, after many years as a horticultural relic, the hedgerow is making a comeback, not only in agriculture and through wildlife preservation efforts, but also in the suburban landscape, where a well-planned living wall can be the perfect privacy screen and much more.
A Deeply Rooted History
Use of hedgerows in farming dates back thousands of years, when walls of stone and plants were built to divide fields for cultivation. Some of the oldest surviving hedgerows are found in Cornwall, England, where about 30,000 miles of “hedge” (they expressly avoid the term “hedgerow” for their regional version of the structure) line the countryside, many of these hedges of ancient origin. Over time, land parceling and animal raising spawned numerous varieties of hedgerow designs throughout Britain, Ireland and much of Europe.
Hedge laying is a centuries-old art of manipulating hedgerow plants to mesh together by trimming and thinning branches and redirecting their growth to follow the course of the living wall. The result is an effectively continuous structure that can hold back the largest farm animals while at the same time providing a home for birds and beneficial insect populations. Hedgerows have also been used traditionally to line roadways and enclose private yards and residential properties. In formal gardens of the past, hedgerows were important design elements used to direct traffic and delineate space, as well as to create topiary and other decorative features.
Types of Hedgerows
The most popular images of hedgerows range from the bushy ribbons strewn across the English countryside to the meticulously shorn walls of French gardens to towering rows of cypress trees lining ancient Tuscan roads. But a hedgerow can be any group of plantings that serves a specific purpose.
Rebecca Knapp, a Denver-based landscape architect, likes to create hedgerows with more than the standard varietals—for example, using tall grasses. “A hedgerow of ornamental grasses is a more fluid, less obvious way to screen a view. The grasses are kinetic as they blow in the breeze,” says Knapp.
Many groups these days are touting hedgerows for their environmental benefits. To the US Humane Society, a hedgerow is all about biodiversity, creating a home for everything from butterflies to bats. According to the Humane Society, residential hedgerows can play in important role in bird migration: “In the stripped landscape of autumn, birds use hedgerows as full-service rest stops on their routes—offering both food and protective shelter. Nonmigratory birds profit from this food and shelter as well. Planting just one or two rows of berry-bearing shrubs can attract more than 90 species of birds.”
Reasons to Plant Hedgerows at Home
In many successful landscape designs, a hedgerow takes the place of a fence or garden wall. Most of Knapp’s clients are hoping to block an unappealing view, “usually a view of a yard next door that is not taken care of. Typically, a lawn is a unifying element in the residential landscape, flowing from yard to yard. But if a neighbor’s ‘lawn’ is 2-foot-tall weeds and dead grass, then a hedgerow is a great solution.”
For other clients, Knapp uses hedgerows to add curb appeal by framing the street-side view of the house, using hedgerow plantings that “bookend” the property. She says hedgerows are also effective for directing travel, such as preventing pedestrians from taking a shortcut through a yard on a corner lot.
In the backyard, where so many homes have fences, Knapp often uses hedgerows to conceal or enhance an existing structure. “A hedgerow can serve as a privacy screen by adding height to a short fence, or it can hide the fence itself. A backyard fence that’s entirely visible leaves no room for exploration; there's no mystery, and the effect can leave you feeling boxed in. It's much nicer to soften the fence with some shrubs and trees. However, there’s no need to hide the fence entirely; there should be breaks in the plant material, creating windows of the fence or the view beyond. The goal is to have layers, with overlapping textures that create interest.”
On a strictly practical level, hedgerows are often used to shelter a house or outdoor seating area from wind. Because of its natural texture and penetrability, a hedgerow absorbs some of the air current as it blocks it, making it a more effective windbreak than solid barriers, such as fences or masonry walls, which serve as little more than speed bumps in the wind’s path. Hedgerows planted heavily with stout evergreen specimens are best for protecting a house wall from cold winter winds.
Tips for Planning and Starting a Hedgerow
The 2 most important steps to creating a hedgerow are selecting the right plants for your goals and establishing the hedge with plenty of care in the first years after planting. While the cost and labor involved in starting a large hedgerow can be significant, the same is true of most types of fences. But once established, a hedgerow only gets better over time (with little or no additional cost), while a fence inevitably worsens and eventually needs to be replaced. Here are more considerations for getting started:
- Purpose. Identify the main purposes of your hedgerow and choose your plants accordingly. For example, if privacy or screening a view is your goal, Roger Cook of This Old House writes: “Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) is a good choice because it doesn’t need pruning to keep its full shape from top to bottom and adapts to a wide range of growing conditions... To get a sense of privacy right away, select specimens that are at least 6 feet tall, with green foliage and moist root balls.” (This Old House magazine; July/August 2010; p. 106)
- Time. Be patient; well-planned landscaping takes time to mature. The same is true of hedgerows. The Mississippi State University Extension Service recommends: “...trees and shrubs can be established from container plants. For faster screening, plant shrub species a little closer together than their mature width. Select several species of large trees, smaller trees and shrub types; especially ones with wildlife benefits. To minimize watering and maintenance requirements, plant in the fall or winter and use tough plant species that require little care.”
Rebecca Knapp offered these additional tips about designing with hedgerows:
- Visibility. “(Be aware of) visibility of cars and pedestrians as they meet at alleys and driveways. I design hedgerows to end at a good distance from the street and sidewalk in order to maintain sightlines.
- Access. In the front yard, I try to keep the mailman's path open with step stones through the bed so he doesn’t have to trample over the plantings.
- Numbers. If trees are included, plant them in odd numbers; one tree is fine, but instead of doing two, it looks better to use three. The decision to plant trees is often based on space. Narrow trees are handy in smaller yards.
- Foreground. A low foreground element, like perennials, can be a nice way to transition back from a tall hedgerow to your lawn. Alternatively, if the hedge is only about 3 feet tall, it can look especially clean and crisp without perennials in front.
- Dimension. Hedgerows don’t have to be straight; you can wiggle the plants forward and backward to create interest and make it less formal. Mixing evergreen and deciduous plants is a good idea for year-round interest and screening. Trees with berries or those that hold their leaves all winter (such as oaks) can add another dimension to the hedge.”
For more information on choosing the right plants and starting a hedgerow, consult a local landscaper, landscape architect or designer, or call your nearest extension service for recommendations and referrals.
Updated December 13, 2018.
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