Suburban Hedgerows: Grow a Living Fence

1 / 3
In this suburban hedgerow design, small and medium-sized trees are planted so they’ll stretch from one end of the row to the other when they mature.
2 / 3
Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) provide a nifty water source for beneficial insects and birds.
3 / 3
Some types of trees and shrubs attract a more diverse selection of birds and wildlife.

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.

How to Build a Suburban Hedgerow

A suburban hedgerow doesn’t have to be planted all in one year. It can be a three- to five-year project that lets you spread the work while giving you time to choose the best plants.

The first decision in building your own hedgerow is location. To block winter winds, find out the direction of your area’s prevailing breezes and plan accordingly. Also be sure the drainage in your chosen spot is conducive to the plant species you select.

The width of your planting is also an important consideration. Traditional hedgerows are about 20 feet wide, though you still reap benefits if yours is only 10 or 12 feet wide. (For rural applications, hedgerows up to 100 feet wide may be more suitable for wind protection.) Consider collaborating with the neighbors on the other side of your planned hedgerow. If they take 10 feet and you take 10 feet, you have the ideal 20 feet, plus partners in the project.

If you have a choice, fall is the best time to plant trees and shrubs. However, spring planting will work almost as well. The hedgerow is a permanent installation, so soil preparation in the beginning is the only chance you have to easily amend it. For best results, till the hedgerow area while simultaneously working in an inch or so of compost. You want to start off with nutrients for the soil food web at the get go. Those worms and microbes are critical to having healthy plants through the years.

After working the organic matter into the soil, cover the entire hedgerow area with a 3- to 4-inch layer of straw or coarse wood chips. This material should hold back the majority of weeds while you’re in the early stages of planting. Some landscapers will give you a free truckload of wood chips if you ask. Then place your plants in the mulch, leaving the soil covered so beneficial earthworms have a steady lunch.

Choosing Hedgerow Plants

What makes a hedgerow unique is the variety of plants that can be included. Many plants grow underneath taller plants, increasing the density and diversity of the total hedgerow. Placing trees and shrubs of different sizes and shapes is fun — like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Choose the best plants for your area. Whether it is trees, shrubs or perennials, the first priority in plant selection is finding a species that’s hardy in your region and will grow well in the site you’ve chosen. Also include some plants to attract birds and other wildlife, those with edible and medicinal value, as well as those that offer visual interest during each season.

Consider mature size. Before planting, it’s crucial to know how tall and wide each plant will become when it’s mature. Pay attention to the variety of shapes the trees and shrubs will acquire as they mature. Then you can determine how much space under the plants can be filled in with other plants — shrubs planted under trees for example, or perennials and groundcovers under the shrubs.

Research native plants. Try to find as many native plants for your hedgerow as possible. Exotic trees and shrubs may grow just fine, but they may not attract the variety of beneficial insects, butterflies and birds brought in by the native types. For example, the flowering dogwood is home to more than 35 species of birds, plus 20 species of ants, spiders and ground beetles. The imported Kousa dogwood is a reliable tree with gorgeous blossoms, but will not attract near the number of birds and bugs as the flowering dogwood.

Select your trees. Choose from among whatever small to medium size trees grow well in your area. Leave larger slow-growing beauties, such as oaks and elms, for some other part of the landscape.

Look for one or two flowering trees, or perhaps a couple of shade trees with good fall foliage or an evergreen for winter wind protection and cover for the birds. You might also consider planting one or two fruit trees such as an apple or pear. Be aware that two fruit varieties often are required for pollination. Buy medium-size fruit trees rather than the full-size ones — you’ll still get more fruit than you can eat yourself. Shop at the best nursery or garden center in your area, and chat with the person who buys their trees and shrubs. That person should know what grows best in your area. You also can check with your local extension service.

Choose your shrubs. Fortunately almost all the popular shrub species now come in varieties that mature to different heights, widths and shapes. The common forsythia, for example, can grow to 10 to 15 feet tall; however, you can get ‘Golden Peep’ forsythia which grows only 5 feet tall. Most shrubs will grow about as wide as they grow tall. Some shrubs want full sun, but many are happy in partial shade. Pay attention to the available light for each plant, and remember to factor in the size of the closest trees when they mature.

Design the lower layer. The number of species of perennials, annuals, bulbs, vines, wildflowers and ground covers that will look great and grow happily under and around your shrubs is almost infinite. Even native plants such as milkweed and goldenrod, which some folks consider weeds, can make valuable additions that attract wildlife or can be used medicinally. Remember that plants you install this year easily can be replaced next year if they don’t work as well as you expect.

Hedgerows as Camouflage

As it becomes more dense, the hedgerow is a wonderful space to locate and hide such unattractive elements in the yard as a compost pile, a pile of stones and even a brush pile. If you take down a tree, the hedgerow is where you can conceal the stump.

Conceal your passive compost pile. A passive compost pile is a much easier system for producing valuable compost for gardens and beds than an active pile, which is turned periodically (too much work for this guy). It’s simply a pile where you discard all your herbaceous waste, including weeds, grass clippings, leaves and other stuff that isn’t woody in nature.

Blot out a brush pile. Over the years, the home brush pile can evolve from limbs, brush and hedge trimmings, and it can be unsightly. When camouflaging a brush pile in your hedgerow, the only trick is to keep the pile fairly dense so it takes up less space, gives better cover to birds and creates a new environment for yet another group of insects. When you add limbs and brush, cut them into smaller pieces so the pile becomes denser.

Hide a rock pile. For folks in areas of the country where rocks are common in the soil, finding a place to store them out of sight often is a problem. A rock pile in a hedgerow will become valuable habitat by attracting certain kinds of insects and beetles not found in rockless areas. These insects create more food for ground-feeding birds. Even if you only have a few rocks, pile them in the middle of the hedge so they’re not visible.

In the very beginning, when the hedgerow looks sparse, you can attract local plants by courting birds. Set up posts 3 to 6 feet tall inside the hedgerow, then string some wire or heavy twine across the top of the posts. Birds will perch on the string and bring in their favorite local native plants because the seeds are in their droppings — a sneaky way to acquire local plants.

Attract a Diverse Menagerie

Your hedgerow becomes more valuable to your ecosystem if you choose trees and shrubs that are attractive to wildlife. The more birds and insects living in your hedge, the fewer pests will be around to cause problems in your yard. (See “Plant to Attract Birds,” below.)

Every bird species has favorite trees and shrubs. Many trees will house 10 to 30 different species of insects. Birds make similar choices, because they prefer certain fruits or insects to others. Different birds show strong preferences for specific elevations at which they feed, nest or just hang out. The chipping sparrow, for example, may feed on the ground, nest in shrubs and sing from the highest trees.

You can increase the population of “good guys” by adding amenities to make them feel at home. Several birdhouses, feeders and birdbaths will contribute to increasing your bird population. Roosting boxes are valuable for protecting small birds during the long winter months.

Beneficial insects need water just like everyone else, and during droughts they have a tough time finding a drink. Buy four or five plastic ice trays, fill them with pea-size gravel and place them in the hedgerow. You can add water when there is little rain, and when it does rain, your beneficial insects will have a ready water source for at least a week. Even better, include the cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in your hedgerow. This tall native perennial has lovely yellow flowers and leaves that wrap around the stems to form cups that hold rain and dew.

It does not take long for the variety of wildlife inhabiting or visiting your hedgerow to grow. Within a year or two you are likely to see squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, garter snakes and toads. As your hedgerow becomes more dense and offers better cover, you might see migrating bird species. Raccoons, turtles and salamanders also may add to the diversity.

How to Maintain Your Suburban Hedgerow

In the early years, you will need to use mulch and do some hoeing to keep invasive weeds from taking over the site. Water new plants during dry spells for at least two years. Fertilizer is optional, but a bit of slow release fertilizer in the fall for a couple of years is helpful.

As a hedgerow matures, it takes less and less maintenance. There should be no pruning required because trees and shrubs are placed so they can reach their mature size without unduly crowding their neighbors. Once the trees and shrubs mature some, there is less light to allow weeds to germinate. As the hedgerow plants mature, they will drop leaves and needles so perennials will die back. This natural cycle produces an annual application of valuable organic food for the soil denizens such as earthworms and soil microbes.

The goal is a no-maintenance hedge that within three to five years becomes the most attractive, most interesting and most pleasing garden in the neighborhood.

Plant to Attract Birds

These trees and shrubs are among those favored by birds for food, shelter and nesting, plus they’re suited to most parts of the country with four distinct seasons. Your local agricultural extension agent can help you choose additional wildlife-friendly species suited specifically to your area.
— Terry Krautwurst

Deciduous Trees
Crab apple
Flowering dogwood

Evergreen Trees
Eastern red cedar

Deciduous Shrubs
Red osier dogwood

Evergreen Shrubs
Hollyleaved barberry

Jeff Ball has been teaching and writing about gardening for 27 years. He also appeared monthly as the gardening expert on NBC’s “Today” show for eight years. Visit his website here.

Need Help? Call 1-800-678-5779