Picking the right hedge can be a thorny issue

Heather Brown continues her discussion on the perfect hedge.

Ground Effects    -By Heather Brown

Hedges  – Part two

The previous Ground Effects column addressed my idea of growing a salal hedge. This week, l will explore other types of hedges using plants from nature that seem to flourish on the North Island.

First, we should consider the reasons for a hedge. Usually one wants a barrier, either to mask an unsightly view, separate an area of yard (vegetative fence), or as a sound barrier, like a buffer between highway noise and the home. Our property backs onto the highway, and even though there is alder and some evergreens between our property line and the road, we can still hear large trucks going by. In the winter when the alder has shed its leaves we can see and hear much more than trucks.

I chose laurel, as I wanted a hedge that was evergreen and grew to a height of about 8 feet (2 metres) or more. I was naïve to think that I could plant this thing and it would just grow. The fact that I am still going on about it shows how frustrating it is to try doing something that doesn’t naturally fit in our area. There are reasons Laurel didn’t work in my yard, all of them deer related.

I would have been better off planting Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Enough cedar seedlings have sprouted since we cleared the back acre, I could have had a tall hedge by now. My daughter, the expert, suggested it when we moved here 12 years ago. Cedar has the qualities I wanted for a sound barrier, and there was the bonus of colour changes as it went about its shedding of the old growth. The bright red of the shedding bits looks lovely against the deep green of cedar boughs, while the new growth comes in more yellow-green, darkening as it ages.

I have seen great red cedar hedges that have been left untamed, the lower branches gracefully hanging down to the lawn. Other hedges look like they have been carefully trimmed to promote some bushing out. Either way, red cedar is a great choice for hedging. Take note though, cedar can grow to 230 feet (55 metres), and is not suitable for near or under power lines, eaves of houses, or anywhere they may impede wanted views from the home. Don’t be fooled by baby trees; just like puppies, they grow. The potential height of hedging material should be one of the primary considerations when choosing your shrub or tree. Pruning the hedge can keep it under control but some plants lend themselves to pruning better than others.

There is a knack to pruning. Sometimes it’s better to leave the job to a person that is knowledgeable in this art. I am sure we all have seen a pruning job that made us cringe and say “Yeesh!” My daughter, the expert, is called “Sonya Scissor Hands” (you need to watch the movie to get it) by people who have seen her in action. Her advice on pruning follows:  a) for every plant type there is “right” time to prune. b) For every plant type there is a “sweet spot” for the cut that promotes proper branching habits and c) When in doubt, read up on your plant type or ask someone who knows before you start.

Planting a hedge in early spring is best, but if you go with local plants, any time seems to work, watering-in well being the equalizer. One thing that makes a hedge look great is the mass planting of a single species. To see a hedge of wild roses in full bloom is an olfactory sensation as well a beautiful sight. Besides wild roses, we have many other deciduous (lose their leaves in winter) trees and shrubs that grow easily. The bonus to some of them is the flowers, berries or hips that come along during the spring and summer season. But that brings us to another item to consider if you go with a deciduous hedge; the appearance of naked branches and stems (trunks) throughout the winter.  There are a few solutions to follow.

Let’s look at a few of the shrubs that we have on the north island that can be used for hedging, shall we? As we have mentioned the wild rose, let’s start with it. There are two kinds, the Baldhip Rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) and the Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana). Both have flowers, thorns (bristles) and a sprawling habit of growth. The Baldhip has hips (the berry after the flower) that lose the sepals (long thin leafy structures that are attached to the flower end of the hip) thus the name. The Nootka Rose grows to a height of 10 feet (3 metres) but can be just as wide at the base due to its sprawling nature. Pruning will keep it in check. One concern with the Baldhip Rose is the presence of bristles along the stems, especially younger ones, which are thought to cause skin irritation or swelling when contacted. This fact alone may make the Baldhip Rose a poor choice for areas where children play. If you prefer its more diminutive size (5 feet (1 ½ metres) max.) it should be planted along a fence line, or road side, well away from play areas. On both roses the hips stay on after the leaves  drop in the fall. These hips add colour and interest to the hedge, and can be food for over-wintering birds. In the spring and summer the roses flower, simple blooms with pale pink petals and yellow stamens (pollen carriers in the centre), and there is a hint of the perfume that makes roses a favourite.

Let’s have a look at some other members of the rose family, starting with the raspberry clan. There is the familiar Salmonberry (Rubus spectabils). Very easy to grow, the bonus is the berries that follow the beautiful pink flowers in early spring. This hedge would fit in any area of the yard as it doesn’t seem to mind shade, moisture, dryness, or full sun. The flowers signal the start of hummingbird season and the fruit are quite edible. Then there is the Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), much like the Salmonberry, it needs little coaxing to do well.  The large white flowers contrast nicely with the soft maple leaf shaped foliage.  The berries are yummy raw, but can also be mixed with Salmonberry in jams, pies, and jellies. The growth habits of these two shrubs are similar to the roses, but the Salmonberry can become quite tall if left unchecked. Pruning would go a long way toward keeping this hedge in check. Winter appeal is not so good for these two, I’m afraid. The Salmonberry has scattered thorns, and its growth habit is messy-looking unless pruned up each fall. The Thimbleberry is less messy and has no thorns. Older stems have shedding bark that adds some interest once leaves have dropped.

Another member of the raspberry clan is the Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus discolor). This is not an indigenous (naturally occurring) species. It’s Asian, imported via England, and has made great inroads in the coastal B.C. area. It is vigorous and hard to control. This rambler loves our climate and can form large mats of horrendously thorny thickets. I tried to tame a thicket that sprung up behind a Mountain Ash (Sorbus scopulina) tree on the front of the property. It took over the corner of the yard that year. It rested on the fence for a bit, gathering strength, then proceeded to arch over to the Mountain Ash tree (24 feet, 7 metres tall). In two years it grew through the Mountain Ash, paused on it to flower and produced huge masses of fruit. This little trick lulled me into thinking that it was okay to leave it in the tree, making it so easy to pick the fruit that year. We enjoyed the pies, jams and jellies made from the berries provided. I started to get apprehensive about the seemingly uncontainable growth of the behemoth it had become. Of course I pruned it, that’s how I found the carcass of the Mountain Ash. The plant had consumed the fence, knocking it over in its relentless march towards our house. I finally admitted defeat. The Mountain Ash was huge and I couldn’t see it. That gives you an idea of the height of the Blackberries. The spread was three times its height. Huge arching new growth with spines that could snag a full grown sheep— heck, a buffalo would be hard pressed to get away. Out came the power saw and chains. After cutting it back and hauling away the branches we chained up the stumps left behind and dragged the roots and shoots out of the ground with a truck. I was a mass of scratches and scrapes but it was worth it, we reclaimed a huge portion of the yard, lesson learned. All in all, maybe not a good shrub for hedging or the faint of heart.

Next column I will wrap up the hedge series with a summary of more plant specimens that would make good hedging material, and a few notes on the gathering of specimens in regards to the environment and sustainability.