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Miss Floribunda: Betting on hedges

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Posted on: May 11, 2023

Dear Miss Floribunda,


What would be an easy thing to plant for a hedge tall enough to screen out my next-door neighbors’ backyard? I like the neighbors OK, but they seem to think that plastic lawn furniture and statues from tacky roadside souvenir stands are the ultimate in elegance. I have broached the subject of a hedge to them just on the grounds that I like to go out in the backyard in the mornings to drink my coffee, and don’t want to have to get fully dressed. The remarks I got were about as tasteful as their lawn decor, but they told me that if I wanted a hedge, they would help me plant one. 

Can you recommend something that would grow at least 10 feet tall, and grow quickly? Also, it should be evergreen so that the view is blocked all year. None of us could qualify as a very experienced gardener, so I would hope there is something that doesn’t require too much care once it’s planted. Somebody suggested photinia and somebody else euonymus. What do you think? 

Questing For Quick Fix on Quintana Street 

Dear Questing, 

Exotic plants such as those you name are very tempting because of their attractiveness and the speed at which they grow, but I hope you will consider alternatives among beauties native to the U.S. Here’s why: The red-tipped photinia, which can grow to 10 feet high in three years, comes from Asia and has become invasive in the western part of the U.S. In our muggy area, it’s prone to a number of fungal diseases, so it would need special attention to survive beyond three or four years. (A species native to our continent exists, but it grows to only 3 feet tall.) 

Euonymus is another plant of Asian origin that can easily become invasive. It also only grows up to 8 feet tall, so doesn’t reach the 10-foot height you wish for. And although it does attract such beneficial insects as bees, it also attracts flies in great numbers. This might make your outdoor coffee time unpleasant. I might add that the flowers of the photinia have a pungent odor, which is also unlikely to enhance your breakfast experience. Both these shrubs have berries, and so while they do feed birds, the birds’ wide distribution of their seeds are among the reasons the plant has become invasive.    

Aunt Sioux, one of my trusty native-plant experts, recommends the American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis). It makes the fastest-growing, densest and most handsome evergreen hedge you could plant. In the cypress family, though often called white cedar, its invigorating fragrance is used in essential oils. Its soft lacey foliage does not scratch. Unless you also want the hedge to deter intruders, this makes it preferable to the otherwise desirable sharp-leaved American hollies. It is a favorite nesting site for birds, and its seeds and flowers provide nourishment for birds and other pollinators. It grows from 12 to 24 inches a year, and can eventually reach 60 feet in height. Because it is also shallow-rooted, it’s not a good idea to plant such tall trees too close to your house. (If it reaches a height of 60 feet, it should be at least 60 feet away from your house — and, of course, from other houses!) 

Now, if you could be content with a less dense, somewhat shorter hedge, you might emulate another of my native-plant mentors, Wendy Wildflower. Her 8-foot-high hedge of winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is magnificent, yet kinder and gentler than other hollies. Their bright red berries last throughout the winter to cheer up the garden during the bleakest time of the year. Don’t forget, however, that one of these bushes will have to be a male to ensure that berries will burgeon in this or any other holly harem. 

Wendy also knows of a native relative of the camellia, Stewartia ovata. In the southeast up through Missouri, it’s known as the mountain camellia. It grows to at least 15 feet high, and its simple but dramatically cupped white flowers bloom in summer. It prefers part shade but can survive in full sun; it can weather our winters easily. 

You might also consider a hedge of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), which, while deciduous, hangs onto its leaves until late winter, when it produces deliciously fragrant yellow flowers, followed by new leaves. It is not very fast-growing, though, and takes about 10 years to reach a height of 10 feet.

Why don’t you come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society to meet and compare notes with the experienced gardeners who are my sources of information? The meeting will take place at 10 a.m on May 20 in the lovely back garden of Virginia Drahan, 4520 Madison Street, Riverdale Park. 



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