By Stephen Jones
“Good fences make good neighbors”
— Robert Frost, 1914
There are countless reasons one desires a privacy fence, often the least of which being trouble with a neighbor. To put up a privacy fence made of wood, metal, or composite can mean a lot of hard work, expense, and HOA red tape. It can be far easier to plant a hedgerow for privacy. From the positive environmental impact to the attractive display, a privacy hedge can make a very good neighbor.
Hedging in a garden serves most importantly as a design feature. It allows one to control the entire view of the garden. Also, a privacy hedge allows the garden to create and maintain its own mood. For instance, one could go to painstaking lengths to build a quintessential English cottage garden—pale pinks, soft blues, drifts of white—only to be dominated by the neighbor’s old yellow van with a purple mermaid airbrushed on the side. Living garden walls keep the mood in, and the van out while providing a lovely backdrop for the landscape.
Hedges can be grown in all shapes and sizes, blooming, deciduous, or evergreen. Most commonly, evergreen hedges are desired. Perhaps the most commonly planted in a privacy hedgerow is arborvitae. Arborvitae (Thuja) is a member of the cypress family. Because they share similar foliage and bark color, arborvitaes are often falsely identified as a cedar. Arborvitaes make desirable privacy fences for many reasons—fast growing, dense foliage, and a compact footprint. Because arborvitaes grow in columnar form, a hedgerow can be planted in a relatively narrow bed. They should not, however, be planted closer together than 3.5 feet. Arborvitae are often sold and thought of as an “instant’ screen. Of course, in gardening “instant” is a relative term. Arborvitae can be an instant privacy screen in about three years. This is important for many reasons. Arborvitae are considered to be a relatively disease resistant tree, but most susceptible within the first few years of planting. Planting with ample room for airflow between them allows stronger branches and trunks to grow. Planted too closely together, they will shield each other. This sounds like a good thing, but shielding each other means weaker trees. Weak trees may survive mild weather, but extreme heat and drought like in 2012 or bitter cold and biting winds like this past winter took their toll on many arborvitae hedges. Planting at least 3.5 feet apart will build an arborvitae hedge that is strong, dense, and attractive in its maturity. Arborvitae are easy to grow, but can be difficult to plant and establish. They are sensitive to transplant. When new arborvitae are planted, the root ball must be thoroughly soaked. They are native to the northern Great Lakes and inland New England in marshy or boggy soil. They prefer slightly basic (alkaline) soil.
Although arborvitae is the most popular option for privacy hedging, there are many other options.
Deciduous hedges like viburnum or lilac (Syringa) are beautiful and effective hedges that provide lots of bloom and interest. The downside, or upside, is that they are only a true privacy hedge about half the year while they have leaves. This works for many people, as they would like the privacy when they are out in their gardens entertaining or reading. During the late fall and winter, the garden still has the structure of the branches but is not boxed in by the leaves. Lilacs are exceptionally easy to grow. To create a lilac hedge, they should be planted about five feet apart. An important part of keeping a lilac hedge dense is regular pruning. Lilacs left unpruned will become top heavy and branchy at the bottom. Once the plants are established, it is wise to cut a few old canes down to the ground. This will promote low growth; therefore, a more complete privacy hedge. Lilacs only bloom on old wood, so prune selectively. It would be a shame to miss a season or two of bloom. Viburnums are versatile and diverse plants. Some have hydrangea-like blooms, and for years they were classified in the hydrangea family. They are now classified in the Adoxaceae family. There are so many varieties of viburnum, but one of the most popular for hedging in our area is the Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum). It grows about 6-15 feet tall and spreads about the same. For a dense hedge, these would best be planted between 5 and 7 feet apart. It blooms white in the early summer and has beautiful autumn color. The autumn color starts yellow, then fades to deep red, and eventually to dark purple.
Privacy hedges not only offer a border between neighbors, but a windbreak in harsh weather. Many plants were severely burned or killed this past winter—not necessarily by all the snow, but by the frigid wind. A windbreak protects more vulnerable plants like roses or ornamental trees in such conditions. Whether to protect your eyes from an unpleasant view, or to protect your roses from an unpleasant winter, a privacy hedge is a lovely and uncontroversial solution.
Stephen Jones is a Delaware County OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.