Hedges and Fences (Part 3)

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Last week, we looked at how to determine what hedge would be right for your yard and how to plant them so that they don’t grow into your power lines or too close to your fences.

This week, we’ll look at our testing ground — a.k.a., Fortress Peschel — and share our experiences and what we learned in the process.

Learning from Trials & Errors

The first thing we recommend is to line the northern side of your yard with evergreens. Yews, cedars, thuja, boxwood, holly, junipers: anything that will keep its needles all winter long. This will provide a permanent screen against those frigid winter winds blowing down from Canada.

A hedge would have kept her from seeing Crankshaft naked. Don't let it happen to you.

A hedge would have kept her from seeing Crankshaft naked. Don’t let it happen to you.

We learned this lesson the hard way. Our home’s previous owners planted a forsythia hedge, which bloomed beautifully for one week and looked like a pile of sticks for 51. It also wanted to entangle the power lines and had to be trimmed several times a year. We replaced it with a mixed hedgerow of native shrubs, all of them about 6 inches high at planting time. I would guess I had a 50 percent failure rate due to inadequate soil preparation and those freezing, desiccating winds. I was amazed at how much wind that loose, open line of forsythia blocked and how it improved the microclimate of the yard in January.

I kept trying to make the new hedgerow work, when what I should have done was widen it, move the survivors further into the yard, and line the fence with yews. I would have had the privacy and a permanent windbreak. Instead, we have a messy hedgerow of mixed native shrubs, Jerusalem artichokes, volunteer goldenrod, mixed weeds, and blackberries.

Alongside the fence, First Son installed three salvaged A’s from the supports of an old swing set. He lined the interior triangle of the A’s with scrap fencing and now Arctic Beauty Kiwis are struggling up them. I am also trying to grow Castle Spire and Castle Wall hollies to fill in the gaps and block the wind. We keep trying to make this work. I wanted the hedgerow to act as a screen to winter winds, to provide wildlife habitat, to give privacy, and to supply food production. It isn’t doing any of these things very well. If I had read this essay years ago, it would have saved me a lot of time, money, and aggravation!

The west side of the yard faces the Reese factory, a 24-hour operation so there is always lights and noise. There is also the neighborhood’s main power line about 15 feet in the air. This location demanded a wall and Hicksii yews (taxus) fit the bill beautifully. They grew really well, so well that I had to widen their bed and move the underplantings of daffodils and daylilies. The yews were shading them out! The yews are now about 8 to 10 feet tall and still have some room to grow up. They have filled out to about 2 feet in diameter. With the fence and the neighbor’s hedge we have an impenetrable wall.

The south side of the yard faces the highway with the dentist’s office at the southwest corner and the two story neighbor’s house at the southeast end. The noise and light from the highway never stop. The dentist has 24 hour security lights. The neighbors have a second floor balcony and the slope of the land puts their entire property two feet higher up than ours. The narrow side yards between the houses put us really close together. Their house blocks a lot of morning sun. This is ok in the summer but very bad in the winter and directly affects the window dance (see the essay on this). There is also a power line, connecting the main line to the house. This demanded multiple strategies. The back third of the fence got more Hicksii yews. The middle third got arborvitae (thuja) that grow as very narrow cones and top out at 8 to 10 feet. This comes in under the power line as it gets closer to the house.

The front third was the most difficult. We got the least privacy where we needed it the most as the change in elevation was highest here. This gave their porch almost as good a view into our yard as their second floor balcony. Both side yards, ours and theirs, are about 15 feet wide. This is a rental property so the tenants change regularly. Larry the landlord insists on the privet hedge being kept to four feet. I needed as tall a screen as I could get that was two feet wide (the yard was so narrow, I didn’t want to sacrifice more space) and let in the winter sun to light and warm the house. That meant a deciduous hedge.

The first attempt was with ornamental grass. I had two varieties and neither was satisfactory. Even when the catalog says column form, the stuff is grass and will spread into a fountain. Both varieties took up way too much horizontal space. I could have lived with this but they weren’t tall enough! And — I did not know this — ornamental grass has to be hacked back to the ground every spring for it to grow well. So every spring, we had no hedge at all.

Back to the catalogs. A field trip to Longwood Gardens led me to columnar apple trees. These get really tall (20 feet!) and grow no more than two feet in diameter. As a bonus, you get flowers in the spring and you may get apples. So First Son dug out all 12 clumps of ornamental grass and they went to the school district for their landscaping projects. The columnar apples went in and are now heading into their third year. They were about four feet tall when they arrived from Stark Brothers’ nursery and are now getting past six feet. They leaf out well but do require trimming at the graft. I have a mix of crabapples, red apples and green apples. Up until now, only the crabs have set flowers and fruit. For the first time this year, the red and green apples are old enough to flower and set fruit. As far as I was concerned, this was a (delicious) bonus. I mainly wanted the screen.

If the apples fail, I might have to go to evergreens or clumping bamboo. The bamboo would certainly give me height: some forms can be 100 feet tall! However, bamboo can be very aggressive and you must make certain to get the type and variety you want. Don’t go cheap and get a running form. You and the neighbors will regret that forever.

The backyard: 2001 (above); 2014 (below.

The backyard: 2001 (above); 2014 (below.

Screening with Curb Appeal

Now we come to the front yard. I refused to buy a house in a gated community, so I do not have some group of narrow-minded Nazis telling me what I can and can’t have in my yard or on my house. My neighbors don’t care how we landscape the property. I do, however, want the yard to look somewhat normal from the street. This side faces east and has a lot of solar gain; bad in the summer and good in the winter.

This has led to lining the street-edge of the yard with a wide bed planted in carefully spaced trees, with an underplanting of shrubs. There is no fence. The flowerbed alongside the driveway is full of mixed perennials, some very tall; five to seven feet high. This gives a pretty good screen between the house and the street. It is much better in the summer, of course, when all is grown and thick. Even in the winter, we still get screening from the branching structures of the trees and shrubs. They do not make a formal hedge; rather a loose, flowy, fluffy mass of greenery and flowers. It is kept weeded and edged and the lawn area is mowed. That sends a signal that the yard is maintained as a naturalistic garden and not that we let it run wild. The alternative is neatly clipped hedges trimmed to about four feet tall. I don’t like pruning so I went with the loose fluffy mass of shrubs.

If you don’t want to have a hedge in the front yard and you don’t like the loose mass of mixed shrubbery with taller trees, you are back to a picket fence or wrought-iron. Mark your property off with something: low walls of brick or stone look great and can be built a little at a time by you as you get time and money. Rows of ornamental grass, tall daylilies, herbaceous borders, anything but a bare expanse of grass leading right up to your front door. Shrub roses are very pretty and have the added defensive benefit of coming with vicious thorns. No one could ever object to a row of rose bushes. No one will ever walk through one either.

Front yard: 2001 (above) and 2014 (below)

Front yard: 2001 (above) and 2014 (below)

As you can see, a lot can happen in 13 years, so get started now! Study those catalogs, talk to the local nursery, ask other homeowners what is that attractive hedge that they are growing, and think about your own needs for privacy, food production, security, pruning tolerances, light and solar gain as the seasons change, wildlife habitat and space limitations. Get the fence in and then get those hedges growing.

Next Week: Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light