Planting a Healthy Hedge
A good start now...a lush healthy hedge later.
By Gary Wentz, St. Paul, Minnesota
In most yards, a hedge is an organic fence. Like a fence, a hedge can enclose your yard, block the wind and give you privacy. In other ways, a hedge is better than a fence: It's a softer boundary that blends with other plants and changes with the seasons. And a hedge can last practically forever.
Unlike a fence, which can be put up in a couple weedends, a hedge encloses your yard gradually. Even fast-growing species can take three years to go from knee-high to shoulder-high. And as with any living thing, the progress of a hedge isn't entirely under your control.
But there are things you can do to give your hedge a good start, speed its growth and ensure that in the end you'll have a dense healthy hedge.
Just about any type of shrub planted in a row will grow into a hedge. And among the dozens of species available, you're sure to find several that will thrive in your yard. But picking the right plant is vital, and for that you'll need the help of local professionals.
Begin by visiting a few nurseries and seeking out knowlegeable salespeople, preferably trained horticulturists.
Here are some questions you should be ready to answer:
- Approximately how many hours of direct sunlight will your hedge get each day during the summer?
- How high do you want your hedge to grow? Some species top our at less than 2 feet; others can grow to well over 10 feet. But remember: taller also means wider. Is your yard large enough to accommodate a 3- or 4-foot-wide hedge?
- How long are you willing to wait for the hedge to develop? A fast-growing hedge may reach mature height in just 3 years. Slow growers may take twice as long.
- Do you want deciduous plants (they drop their leaves in winter) or evergreens? Most evergreen hedges are dense growing year-round. Deciduous species generally grow faster, and depending on the season, provide berries for birds or colorful leaves or blossoms that will add dazzle to your yard.
- Do you want a formal hedge (above) or an informal hedge (below)? Some species are better suited to one or the other style.
- Will your hedge be subjected to any special conditions? Will it be in a low area that becomes swampy after heavy rains? Or will it have to endure constant exhaust fumes and winter road salt along a busy street?
- What kind of soil do you have? You'll need a soil test to help answer this one. Just send a sample of your soil to a laboratory, usually at a university or agricultural Extension agency; call a nursery to find out where to send the soil. The lab will send you complete test results, plus recommendations for solving any problems. They may suggest you amend the soil by adding peat moss, for example.
Hedge plants are usually sold in one of two forms: bare-root or container-grown (usually in plastic pots).
Bare-root plants are by far the cheapest: A bundle of 12 can cost as little as $30. And because they don't come set in several pounds of soil, they're easy to transport and plant. But bare-root plants have their drawbacks: They're small (usually only 1 year old) when you buy them, so you'll need to be patient, and they should be planted when they're dormant—that means early spring in most places, or winter in warmer climates.
Note: When comparing the prices of hedge plants, remember that different plants are spaced at different intervals, usually 1 to 3 feet apart. So for a 60-foot hedge, you may need as few as 20 plants, or as many as 60.
Container-grown plants are sometimes larger than bare-root plants (they may be up to 3 years old) and can be planted any time of the year. But they cost a lot more: $15 to $30 each.
You may also see large hedge plants in a third form of packaging: with the roots and a ball of soil wrapped in burlap or plastic. Some balled plants are large enough to create an instant hedge. But at $75 or more each, these plants can also instantly empty your wallet. And larger plants are more likely to suffer damage from the shock of adjusting to a new growing environment.
TIP: You may be able to save money by buying your hedge plants in the fall, when nurseries are anxious to clear their inventories.
The surest way to get healthy plants is to bypass the home center specials and buy from a reputable well-established nursery. Still, it's a good idea to give the plants a quick examination before you take them home.
Because they're usually sold when dormant, bare-root plants look dead at first glance. But there are signs of life to look for. Healthy roots are thick and bushy, plump and supple. Roots that are shriveled or brittle have dried out, and perhaps already died. Also avoid plants with split or sun-scorched bark on the stem. The more buds on the stem or branches, the better.
To inspect a container-grown plant, look at the leaves. The signs of trouble are fairly obvious: black spots, yellowing or holes created by hungry insects.
Plant the shrub as soon as possible after you buy them. In the meantime, store them in a cool shady place. It's best to pack the roots of bare-root plants in damp peat moss and then soak them in a bucket of water overnight before planting.
Caring for New Plants
Even drought-resistant species need plenty of water during their first two growing seasons. Dig down about 3 inches into theo soil with your fingers every few days. If the soil feels dry, water the hedge. Other signs that your soil is too dry include plants that wilt during hot weather or leaves that change color or texture; shiny, deep-green leaves may become dull and lighten in color, for example.
You may need to water your hedge two or three times a week at first. When you do water, water slowly and heavily. Light watering encourages roots to grow near the soil's surface, and shallow-rooted plants are likely to suffer during hot dry weather.
Adapting to a new enviornment is hard on plants, so don't add to the trauma by pruning heavily during the first season. Go ahead and snip off dead, deformed or awkwardly protruding branches, but don't begin to shape the hedge until the following year, when the plants have filled out a little bit.
Finally, a hedge-planting proverb: The first year it sleeps, the second it creeps and the third it leaps. Your hedge has to adjust to its new home before it can thrive. Don't lose hope if it doesn't shoot up like Jack's beanstalk during its first couple of seasons. Have patience, fertilize as needed and watch for that third-year leap.
Before you can plant the hedge, you'll have to prepare a "hedge patch" by removing the sod and digging a trench (Step 1). If you're planting bare-root stock, make the patch about 18 inches wide. For container-grown plants, make it twice as wide as the containers. If you're planting a long hedge, save yourself some hard labor by renting a power sod cutter (about $50 per half day).
When the trench is complete, amend the soil (Step 2) and plant your shrubs (Step 3). When backfilling the trench, remember that the plant should be set in the ground at its original depth, not deeper. Bare-root plants have a visible soil line around the stem that shows how deep to plant them. With container-grown plants, don't backfill over the soil that came in the container.
When you're done backfilling, water the hedge thoroughly. You may also want to lay mulch over the filled trench and plants to help keep the soil cool and moist and discourage weeds. But don't spread decorative stone around the plants; stone reflects sunflight, which may scorch the plants.