English gardens are world renowned. Rightly famous for roses, perennials and the like, English gardens are where English gardeners most joyfully express their personalities. There, more than anywhere else in England, you’ll see excess simply for the joy of excess. There’s nothing like a well-done English garden.
The backbone of an English garden is a hedge. Usually several, because there’s more than one side to the yard. Enclose the yard to experience beauty and privacy.
Yes, hedges are very popular landscape features across the pond. Popular as boundary markers back in Roman times, thousands were planted throughout the UK in response to the Enclosures Acts enacted from 1604 to 1914; today, there remain more than 500,000 miles of hedgerows originally created as boundary markers. While the intent of the acts was to limit cattle movement and delineate ownership of land, the hedges planted have become ubiquitous for their beauty as well as habitat for wildlife. Little wonder that they have become such a bulwark of English gardens!
Sadly, shrubs in this country have for many years been mostly consigned to a few specimens leaning up against home foundations to be gazed upon across acres of sad grass. Every so often, someone goes rogue and plants one (gasp!) in the middle of the yard, or maybe at a corner.
It’s all good – they clean the air, sequester carbon, and can give wonderful pollen and nectar to bees and roosting spots for birds. That’s one shrub – imagine a whole lot of them altogether. You’re on your way to an English garden.
Shrubs enjoy a “height nook” that is often overlooked in landscape plans. While indoors we have pictures, furniture, shelves, plants, etc. in between the ceiling and the floor, outdoors it seems the space between the lowest tree branch and the ground covers is frequently as blank as an empty apartment. This is a shame, both for the boring appearance the blank space creates, and for the small wild creatures we love, who might very much enjoy “decoration” in the blank space.
Birds and other wild creatures all have their favorite heights to roost, nest, and feed in. If you consider a staircase, there’s at least one animal that enjoys life on each stair.
Shrubs do a great job of filling in those blank spaces. When you create a hedge, you’ll be filling in those empty spaces, improving your yard’s “eye candy” and providing a home for birds, etc. you’ve never seen in your yard before.
Hedges are such very good habitat there’s an animal named for its preference for hedges. I speak, of course, of the hedgehog, which is only found as a pet here in these United States, but around the world is commonly found in – hedges, of course. Hedges create a better habitat than the surrounding farmland or lawn, and the hedgehog helps the landowner by eating unwanted insects and slugs.
We won’t get any hedgehogs here, but we can have glorious hedges made famous by British gardeners. Along the way we’ll fill up our yards with birdsong – many birds find the “staircase” cover from predators absolutely perfect for song posts to attract mates. You’ll watch them hop hopefully from branch to branch, singing in each new shrub. Some will quietly approach the singer – success for the troubadour. Such fun to watch in the spring garden.
Other times, you’ll watch insanely happy bees gorging themselves on nectar and stockpiling pollen. A prolific shrub can produce more flowers all by itself than an entire garden full of flowers, and hedges create a smorgasbord. Butterflies may join the fun, too. Look carefully down near the roots, you may see a toad waiting for an unlucky fly.
Hedgerows improve the fun for everyone. Hedgerows commonly add perennials and native grasses to the mix, but around the world, you’ll find hedgerows are used simply as a place to plant things that shouldn’t be mowed. In Europe, it’s not uncommon to find vegetables and fruit trees in a hedgerow. The close association of different plants actually helps deter pests – they might show up, but a nearby bird or toad will munch on them.
Hedges can help wildlife more quickly than almost any other landscape element you can dream up. One of the ongoing issues small creatures face that is hastening their extinction is the segmentation of their habitat. When you’re only a half an inch long, the tree that is an acre away may be a death sentence to attempt to reach. Birds can easily see the pretty butterfly sailing across the lawn (butterflies love trees, too). Hawks and other predatory birds can easily see the small sparrow, etc. that is trying to get to that tree or butterfly.
Hedges to the rescue. In addition to protection from sky borne predators and scary mowers, hedges stretch across a distance while providing roosting spots, shade, and protection from sky-borne predators. Imagine that, instead of an expanse of sad lawn, there were hedges surrounding it all, in every yard – small creatures, the butterflies, birds, toads, etc. would be able to travel as easily as we drive down a highway. They’d find more mates and we’d all see more birds and butterflies, which is something to look forward to.
As if all that wasn’t enough, hedges can help extend the bloom in your yard. If you like flowers, bees and butterflies, a row of blooming shrubs may be a godsend to you as well as the delighted butterflies. Try some that bloom in spring coupled with summer bloomers for a good show and very happy pollinators.
Hedgerows take hedges to another level, both for the homeowner and wildlife. These are trickier in urban areas as they might offend people who are scared of nature, but, if you’ve got nice neighbors or lots of land, they’re fantastic.
Hedgerows are hedges with a mixture of plants. Lots of shrubs, as you would expect, along with some smaller trees, grasses, flowers, etc. If you’re in an urban area, you can still make an effective hedgerow with chosen ground covers beneath your shrubs. It won’t give you the sheer exuberance of joyous birds the ‘messier’ grass lined hedgerows will, but you will still find many a happy bird, bee, or butterfly.
Most shrubs and many trees will make a fine hedge. Which should you plant? We’ve listed a few natives to help whet your appetite.
Since native species plants will go far to help wildlife, if that’s part of your goal, start with some of them. There are native shrubs and trees that can make any yard come alive with beauty and birdsong. Most natives will handle a variety of sun situations – there are only a few that require deep, dark, full day shade. Any amount of sun is likely to make most happy, and even light shade – such as we commonly find under small groupings of pines – is a great spot for shrubs (choose those that can handle drier soil).
Want more privacy? There are shrubs that fit the bill. If you’re determined to keep out people, dogs, (and maybe deer), plant native roses. Rose thorns can be a formidable deterrent to people and dogs, deer don’t like the thorns, and birds enjoy the rose hips. You can enjoy the rose hips, too, if you like; they are edible and full of vitamin C.
Roses LOVE to bloom. Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina) Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana), Smooth Rose (Rosa blanda, has few thorns), and Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) will give you much summer bloom and rose hips in the fall for birds or you. All except Virginia Rose will bloom best in full sun (this one likes a bit of shade); Smooth Rose and Prairie Rose can handle a bit of shade. Dry soil, choose Smooth Rose or Virginia Rose; others prefer more moisture, and Swamp Rose can handle seriously wet (but not a swamp). These roses are tough and easy to grow. They are guaranteed to bring you butterflies in quantities you wouldn’t believe, and bees will be on their little bee knees thanking you.
Evergreens make a fine, tall, hedge. Evergreens provide year-round interest and shelter from the elements for birds. American Arborvitae (Thuja occidentals L.) has long been popular as a tall, rather formal, hedge. Unlike many evergreens, Arborvitae remains full at the bottom to provide great privacy as well as great habitat for birds. American Holly, (Ilex opaca), steps up the game and adds berries birds are crazy for in late winter. These trees are the perfect Christmas season holly.
Want to attract butterflies, mark the boundary, and still be able to see over the hedge? Choose shorter shrubs that won’t require much pruning. Sweet Fern, (Comptonia peregrina), grows only five-foot tall, has lovely foliage, and, in the fall, feeds many birds who enjoy the “nutlets.” Or choose New Jersey Tea, (Ceanothus americanus), which grows only four-foot tall and is beloved of butterflies for its lovely white blooms in July. If your soil is dry, sandy or rocky, this is a good bet for your hedge; it is wildly popular with rabbits, so if your yard is full of them, consider protecting these shrubs until they’re fairly tall. Huckleberry, (Gaylussacia baccata), makes a fine show in the spring and feeds birds (and maybe you). Growing a mere three-foot high, this shrub will have you, the pollinators and the birds singing.
Two shrubs that will wow the wildlife world are the humble Pussywillow (Salix discolor) and native Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
Pussywillow blooms so early it feeds the early bees that are just coming out of dormancy when there are very few choices for them. It’s a great choice for any yard for that reason; it makes a nice hedge, or you can simply grow one at an end, or even the middle, of your hedge made with other shrubs. At a maximum height of six to 15 feet, it can provide a lot of privacy, as well. It is a willow, so it loves water, although it won’t grow in a swamp. It will appreciate a squirt or two in dry spells.
Native Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) goes to the opposite extreme and blooms in late fall. This late bloom is a boon to late flying bees and butterflies; as with the Pussywillow, it may be the only choice available for them. The small fruits are attractive to winter birds. It’s a tall girl, shooting up to 15 to 20 feet, but can be kept shorter with good pruning (prune in spring after bloom). Wearing bright yellow flowers as the world goes winter drab, this plant will brighten your days. Take care when purchasing this plant. There’s a non-native Witch Hazel that blooms in the spring, when there are lots of other blooms about (still a nice shrub). Since finding a good fall blooming shrub is tough, it’s worth taking an extra minute or two to determine if you’ve got the real McCoy, (Hamamelis virginiana.)
Just about any row of shrubs will do a better job than one alone, and look much better, too; just one alone is better than none…so this spring, let’s plant some hedges!
- The Department of Natural Resources has an online “book” that provides thumbnail descriptions of many native plants, along with advice on how to choose them. You can purchase a print version at your local extension office.
- The Chesapeake Bay Native Plant Center has a good search engine on its’ site that can help you figure out which shrub(s), trees, and ground covers you may like.
- The University of Maryland has lists of native species plants you can search online.
Adkins Arboretum, Ridgely has spring and fall sales. www.adkinsarboretum.org.
The Maryland Native Plant Society maintains a list of vendors selling native plants at MdFlora.org.
Environmental Concern, St. Michaels. www.wetland.org.
Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.
Photographs courtesy of Maureen Rice.