Privacy Hedges



That nice patch of woods behind the house just disappeared! For years, your kids played there. All of a sudden, the trees have been cut and a new home is going in. This scenario has become commonplace. Often, instead of fences, homeowners are choosing plants to provide a screen.

For year-around privacy, evergreens are the best bet. Pines, generally, can be fast growing, but tend to lose the lower branches as they grow large. Norway Spruce (Picea abies) grows as fast and large as White Pine, but do keep their low branches as they age. Norway Spruce grows to 100' and 30-40' wide, so it is difficult to keep them as a controllable, sheared hedge. Where space permits, they are the best choice for a fsst screen. This species is quite soil adaptable and will grow well in moderate shade to full sun. They are tough enough to withstand wind and salt along the coast and roadsides. They can get pine weevil and gall aphid, neither of which are very serious pests on healthy trees.

Arborvitae (Thuja) are the most commonly used for privacy hedges. They grow very dense and can be easily trimmed or left to grow. Depending on the variety, they will be 3-10' wide. Growing 6-12" upward a year, they can be topped at any height to maintain a formal screen. Arborvitae prefers loamy or heavy soil to dry, sandy soil. They tolerate moderate shade and grow best in full sun. Drought, in the last five years, has adversely affected some arborvitae and made them susceptible to insects. In July and August, check your plants for stress and water heavily, if necessary. At this time of year, the most serious insect pests are evident. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension, a library, or your nursery professional may help identify an insect problem.

Upright Juniper are less commonly used, but can be great for full sun and drier sites. Of course they do well in loam, but wet and shady areas should be avoided. Juniperus chinensis and virginiana varieties are less prone to serious fungus disease problems. An advantage with juniper is that deer are less apt to feed on them than arborvitae. They also give a wider range of colors in varying shades of green and silver/blue.

Firs are great for privacy screens. They are best planted where they can be allowed to achieve their natural shape and size. Concolor Fir (Abies concolor) grows quite wide and tall, almost rivaling Norway Spruce for growth. There are two excellent specimens in a park in the center of Bridgton that epitomize the best of the species. Their long, glossy needles stand out among evergreens. They are tolerant of various soils and some shade. Balsam (Abies balsamea) and Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) can grow to 50' tall and 20' wide. They prefer good or heavy soil, but, if watered well for a number of years, fir can thrive in sandy soil. There are bunches of exotic fir that are hardy in Maine and these will be covered in a future article.

Other spruces, such as Colorado (Picea pungens glauca), Serbian (Picea omorika), and White Spruce (Picea glauca) are commonly used for formal and informal hedges. They tolerate shearing, although most homeowners will find it difficult to keep them short. They grow about 50' tall and 20' wide at a 6-12" per year rate. In heavier or wet soil, Colorado Spruce is prone to disease and insect problems. Unless driven by starvation, deer rarely do much damage to spruce. The Serbian Spruce seems to be pine weevil magnets, which can be a benefit, if you wish to have a formal hedge.

Rhododendrons are excellent privacy screens for shady areas that are not exposed to wind. The larger varieties can reach 8' tall; and, they tend to spread sideways and often have branches rooting as they touch the ground. So, they can become a broad, dense screen in a shady spot. Hard winters can be rough on the species. However, the brown, dry, winter-damaged branch ends will often shoot out new growth if you water and fertilize them heavily in spring. Do not give up too soon, since I have seen it take until July for this to happen. Best varieties for taller hedges are Nova Zembla, English Roseum, and Roseum Elegans.

If deer are not a problem, Cap Yew (Taxus cusp. "Capitata") and Hicks Yew (Taxus media "Hicksii") are also good shade hedges. They do well in sun, tolerate heavy or light soil, and wet or dry areas. They can be easily shaped, especially if trimmed severely before new growth starts, and, if needed, lightly again in August. This species is a good substitute for Hemlock, which is less soil adaptable and not tolerant of windy sites.

As with other landscape situations, it is important to choose the proper plant for your location, your requirements for privacy, and your willingness to maintain the hedge. Doing the research is well worth your time.

Part Two of this article involves deciduous plants for screens.

Deciduous Hedges

If your need for privacy is primarily in the summer, there are many options in flowering, deciduous shrubs. The great thing about this category of plants is the variety of colors available, as opposed to evergreen choices. If deer are hungry, they may help trim your hedge. A drawback is that they require thinning about every three years.

Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) is a very familiar hedge. The density of its branches provides a partial screen, even in winter. It grows best in loamy or heavy soil, often showing stress in dry summers or sandy soil. Although burning bush will thrive in partial shade, it achieves its best fall red color in full sun. It can grow 10' tall and wide if left untrimmed. Trimming about one third of large, older stems before leaves emerge is the best way to keep the plant vigorous. Insect problems are rare, but cold winters can stunt or kill the compact variety.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a native plant that can also reach 10'. Its glossy green leaves are notable and attractive. In July/August round white flowers are fairly abundant. This plant does best in wet soil and will stay full with half a day of sun. Buttonbush looks best in its natural shape and will not show well under heavy shearing. Thin as you would Burning Bush and informally prune after flowers have dried.

The various Dogwood shrubs (Cornus sericera) can be decent screen plants, with limitations. They prefer moist soil, in sun or shade; and, in the case of Ivory Halo (alba) or Alleman's Compact, the more shade the more the white margins shine. The Red Twig (baileyi) has bright red stems, which are striking against winter snow. In most cases, they can reach 10' tall and tend to spread wide by suckering. In damp years, the foliage can develop black spots, which are more unsightly than serious. If pruned very hard in early spring - more than one third of old stems - and cut back on the outer tips, these shrubs will remain dense and not get leggy.

Elderberry (Sambucus) fall into the same category of requirements as the above Dogwood, but are notable for their showy white flowers and dark berries. New cultivars have mottled leaves or yellow foliage. This plant is very underused in landscaping, but, if you watch along the woodsy roadsides this time of year, you will see masses of their white flowers.

Forsythia is a fast-growing hedge whose stems, as well as foliage, provide a great privacy screen. They do well in wet or dry conditions, as long as it is not too extreme, in full sun. Newer varieties seem less affected by winter cold in terms of providing good flowershows each spring. Forsythia can get taller than 10' and hard pruning is necessary to keep them vigorous. Pruning should be done immediately after flowers drop. Late fall or early spring pruning can reduce flowering.

Lilacs (Syringa), as a rule, can be very good screens. Thinning one third of older stems keeps them healthy and dense. Full sun and loamy soil is best. Heavy or wet areas seem to cause fungus problems and poor results. Lilac can survive in heavy shade, but they will not flower unless they receive full sun. Miss Kim (Syringa patula) grows to 8-10' and is one of the densest foliated lilacs, where the Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) can become thin without heavier pruning. An obvious advantage with lilacs is the very bountiful and beautiful blooms.

For a taller hedge, growing to 15', use Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata) or similar magnolias, for densely branched screens. For a shorter length hedge, perhaps three trees set informally 10-15' on center; they would be a striking spring show. The fragrant, large, white flowers appear before the foliage and rival the tree form Dogwoods. Magnolia do best out of the wind in good soil, although, once established, they can survive in poorer soil. Waterlily and Royal Star are also hardy varieties, and easily survive Zone 4 conditions.

Privet (Ligustrum) is not my favorite hedge plant, yet Gold Privet (Ligustrum vicary) deserves some notice. Near the coast, it can reach 8' tall, but inland it gets stunted and sometimes killed by cold winters with little snow cover. The bight yellow foliage is very cheerful all summer and sets off white June flowers. In the fall, the leaves turn beet burgundy. This plant lends itself easily to shearing and stays very dense. It is soil adaptable, but needs full sun to keep its yellow color. The green variety can tolerate shade. For the traditionalist, it still is a good hedge.

Everyone wants their yard to be their sanctuary and the above plants can help achieve that goal. If you have a tight budget, keep in mind that deciduous plants are generally less expensive than evergreens.


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Poland Spring, Maine
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