Suburban Hedgerows: Grow a Living Fence

Suburban hedgerows are designed to create a dense barrier to gives privacy, reduce sound pollution and protects against winter winds. They also prevent erosion, protect wildlife, and help with snow buildup. An important goal for these new hedgerows is to plant them with trees, shrubs and other native plants to attract local wildlife and insects.

| December 2007/January 2008

Suburban hedgerows provide privacy, attract wildlife and prevent erosion.

Grow a Living Fence

Over the years, I’ve been intrigued by how homeowners with large lots mark the boundaries with their neighbors. Fences are a common device, of course; then we have the ubiquitous row of closely planted arborvitae. But not only are these evergreen boundaries expensive — they’re boring. Plus, a typical suburban hedge using just one plant has little or no value to birds and beneficial insects. My question has always been this: Why not build a hedgerow, a suburban hedgerow, to establish the boundary between two large properties?

A suburban hedgerow resembles the “edge” of a forest with a mix of trees, shrubs and lots of other plants. The edge is always the area of the woods with the largest number of bird, bug and mammal species. The suburban hedgerow I envision is a 10- to- 20-foot-wide strip containing small-and-medium size shade trees, flowering trees and maybe an evergreen or two. Planted among the trees are flowering shrubs producing berries for the birds (or people) to eat, or shrubs that display color in the winter. What grows in between the trees and shrubs can be almost anything you want, including perennials, annuals, bulbs, herbs, ground covers, wildflowers and ornamental grasses.

All these plants are set in the ground at a distance from each other, so in three to five years as they mature, their foliage slightly overlaps in all directions, creating a dense barrier that gives privacy, reduces sound pollution and protects against winter winds. In fact, research on hedgerows designed as windbreaks indicates they can save you up to 40 percent on heating bills. Plus, this collection of plants presents a beautiful mixture of colors, textures and shapes that change with every season. A hedgerow will be alive with birds and butterflies. It’s also a wonderful “jungle” in which young children can play, explore and expand their imaginations.

The History of Hedgerows

The idea of hedgerows started a thousand years ago in medieval Europe. They were usually planted to surround a field and keep livestock from roaming. Plus they gave the farmer fruits, flowers, medicinal herbs, small game to hunt and protection from high winds. For more information, read Hedgerow History by Gerry Barnes and Tom Williamson (Windgather Press, 2006).

In our Midwestern farm states, the state governments now encourage establishing hedgerows along stream beds and around the borders of fields. These modern hedgerows are designed to prevent erosion, protect wildlife, prevent wind damage and help with snow buildup. An important goal for these new hedgerows is to plant them with trees, shrubs and other native plants to attract local wildlife and insects.

12/1/2013 9:33:47 PM

I've been making borders like hedgerows for years and as they age one has to change the plants continually as the sun and shade varies over time. It is fun to make a sunny border turn into a shady native plant border over a ten year period, but you a have to accept that some plants you've always loved there will have to be moved elsewhere. I wouldn't recommend a flowering dogwood because of the disease and insect problems they have in New England-maybe a cranberry viburnum which can be just as tall with white flowers and later red berries for the birds. I also don't like cup plant (silphium) as it seeds readily and the offspring can be annoying to remove and tend to hide in shady places. They need a wide open space to really show off and not interfere with any other plantings. Native grasses, not ornamental, are much better for birds and animals.I wish more people would plant wider, more varied borders between their properties, but they usually want a simple planting of one type of plant only because it is easier to manage-can't blame them because a major diversified planting of 10 feet wide by 50+ feet long or more is harder to maintain.

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