Best hedges for urban gardens
by Rhiannon James
credit: Nathan Pollock
If you were to Google the words ‘garden hedge’, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re a public menace, liable to turn neighbours against each other and attract unpleasant visits from the council. Whilst this is undoubtedly the case with the occasional anti-social specimen, a well-chosen, well-tended hedge can be a real force for good in a contemporary urban garden. The original green walls, they are not just useful as boundaries and screens but also as lower dividers to add structure to the garden or even as edging for beds. They’re also a bonus for all sorts of wildlife. There’s a hedge to suit every style from the formal to the exuberant, and, if you’re feeling creative, some hedges can be carved into all sorts of intriguing shapes – a perfect way to join in with the topiary mania that seems set to take over Chelsea this year. We asked the experts to name their favourites for urban gardens.
“Yew (Taxus baccata) and box (Buxus sempervirens) are still firm favourites and they work well together thanks to the contrast between the bright green textures of the box and the black-green of the yew. Try Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’ as an alternative to the native yew as it’s columnar in form and can produce narrower hedges, ideal where space is at a premium.
Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) offers the dark green colour of yew but with a more textured appearance. It also copes well with shade.
Almost anything can be hedged and grasses create a lighter, more transparent effect. Try Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferner Osten’ which doesn’t grow too high or too dense. For a more dramatic effect, bamboos such as Phyllostachys nigra will give good height and the stems can be shown off by cutting back lower foliage.
Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’ will form a great deciduous hedge with the added benefits of papery-white flowers and then glorious red hips later in the year. Its bristling stems also make a good security barrier. Luma apiculata (also called Myrtus luma) and Myrtus communis provide good glossy foliage that can be tightly clipped and their perfumed flowers and foliage add an extra dimension. Look at Sarcococca too as this will provide winter perfume along with dark glossy foliage, ideally suited to a shady garden.”
Andrew Wilson, garden designer, author and chief assessor for the Royal Horticultural Society (www.wmstudio.co.uk)
“Pittosporum tobira is a brilliant evergreen shrub that’s frequently used for hedging in Mediterranean countries and the southern USA. It has glossy green leaves and creamy-white flowers that produce a lovely heady scent in late spring to early summer. It can tolerate all aspects but if you want flowers, a sunny position is needed. It’s very drought-resistant and is happy in well-drained soil and containers. This Pittosporum can grow to the size of a small tree so it needs to be trimmed once it reaches the right height, which I’d say is 6ft. This shrub is normally imported into this country from Italy and Spain, so it’s not as easy to find as other Pittosporums but it’s definitely worth the effort. I believe it deserves to be grown more widely in the UK as a worthy alternative to other evergreen hedges, which can be quite dark and sombre. Whenever I put it in a garden, the clients love it!”
Ana Sanchez-Martin, garden designer (www.germinatedesign.com)
“A native hedge will reflect the history and traditions of hedging on this island of ours. A combination of Fagus sylvatica, our native beech, and Carpinus betulus or hornbeam, also native to the UK, is an ideal choice. These plants will make a strong, classic and pretty-well-impenetrable hedge that will be loved by wildlife, particularly birds. Both plants have lovely, smooth, grey-coloured bark and in spring the leaves are a vibrant green. One of my favourite things about this type of hedge is the way the wind captures the foliage, creating ripples along the surface. Some may argue that, being deciduous, this hedge has an Achilles heel but the dead copper-coloured leaves, particularly on the beech, are retained in the winter, a trick the plants use to protect their buds.”
Chris Collins, Blue Peter gardener (www.chriscollins.org.uk)
“Elaeagnus x ebbingei, sometimes called by its common name, oleaster, could easily be dismissed as pedestrian or uninteresting when seen in a garden centre or as an unkempt bush. But it’s a hard-working evergreen shrub that’s ideal for creating a dense, clipped hedge or screen of up to four metres in an urban or coastal (it’s very salt and wind-tolerant) garden.
The leaves are 10cm (4 inches) long, glossy, leathery and grey-green in colour with silvery undersides. A delicious and unexpected fragrance is produced in the autumn by the almost invisible clusters of little creamy-white flowers that tend to be hidden amongst the foliage. Tiny green berries appear after flowering and turn a bright orange in the spring. It’s a fully hardy plant, withstanding temperatures down to -15°C (5°F)
Plant it in fertile, well-drained soil, preferably in full sun (it will grow well in partial shade but flower less). Clip to shape once or twice a year, late spring is best. If you leave it until the summer you may prevent the flower buds from forming.
Small hedging plants can be put in close together and allowed to grow to size. But for small urban gardens where some instant screening or a good backdrop is required, I usually buy semi-mature plants that have been trained on to flat frames or panels (think pleached trees without the stem). These are available as 1.2 metre wide x 1.8 metre high units from specialist suppliers.”
Declan Buckley, garden designer (www.buckleydesignassociates.com)
“In areas of sun and partial shade, Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Variegatum’ makes a lovely light and airy hedge. It looks best when its light green, cream-edged leaves are combined with plants that have bold, dark green foliage or white flowers. It’s an undemanding evergreen shrub that has good drought tolerance, requires little in the way of heavy fertiliser and prefers a light, free-draining soil. Pittosporum hedges look most attractive when they’re a little ‘fluffy’ and so only require a clip once a year. They work best when they’re grown to about three to four feet and used as dividing lines between planting.”
Kate Gould, garden designer (www.kategouldgardens.com)
“If you want to create a haven for native wildlife then a mixed hedge, with both deciduous and evergreen planting that produces flowers and berries, is best. This type of hedge can take up a lot of space though.
For a more contemporary feel, a combination of hornbeam, box and yew hedging, used separately, will allow you to create different heights and types of divisions within the garden. These species will also be useful to wildlife and give winter interest. Clip these types of hedges to keep them narrow and to give more room for planting in smaller plots.
Never miss the chance to let a climber romp over a formal hedge as this gives additional height and increases the range of flowering plants in your garden.”
David Lewis, Head Gardener at Kensington Roof Gardens (www.roofgardens.virgin.com)
“I’d suggest a willow ‘fedge’ – a structure that looks like a woven fence in winter and a green hedge in summer. Young willow stems are put into the ground in winter and woven together to make an attractive structure – the height and design are up to you. By spring they will have rooted and will start to produce green leaves. Many willows can be used including Salix alba var. vitellina (golden willow), S. daphnoides, S. viminalis and S. purpurea. As willow is a water-loving tree, plant into moist ground, at least 10 metres from drains and buildings.”
Helen Wallis, garden worker at Culpeper Community Garden (www.culpeper.org.uk)
“A beech hedge (Fagus sylvatica) would be my choice. Despite being deciduous, when it’s grown as a hedge it retains its brown leaves through the winter and has lovely autumnal shades. Yew (Taxus baccata) is the best choice for a clipped evergreen hedge as it’s very dense.”
Sara Jane Rothwell, garden designer (www.londongardendesigner.com)