For three years, Michael Pope and Susan Kramer-Pope lived in their west Medford home watching cars driving straight toward their house. Living near the high school, Michael saw more than one errant student drive into a neighbor's yard. And there was the disturbing flash of night-time headlights. All that was before "The Sentinels" arrived.
Ten arborvitae evergreens now hold the line in front of the Pope home. Planted on a wide berm 22 feet long, the columnar shrubs have nearly filled in the gaps between them after only two years in the ground. They effectively screen the oncoming traffic and have changed the way Michael feels about his front yard.
Choose plants that will perform well in the design you are planning. If you are looking for a formal hedge, choose plants that can be hedged, or clipped flat. Other specimens do well with informal pruning and some need little or no side shearing.
Plants in a privacy hedge should be planted about 6 inches closer together than recommended.
Set plants into the ground at the same level they are planted in the pot or slightly higher. Don't bury the trunk or the root flare at the base of the plant.
Incorporate organic matter into the soil. If there is a berm, make sure that it is watered properly. Water will just run down the sides of steep berms.
Use soaker hoses and water deeply. Placing mulch on top of hoses will hide them and minimize water evaporation. Water regularly and check the soil occasionally with a spade or a soil moisture meter to make sure roots are receiving adequate water.
If the plants will need clipping or pruning, and most do, leave enough space between the hedge and planting beds for access.
"I really like the arborvitae. They look great without much work, except trimming when they get to the right height," he says. "It changed the energy right away."
The arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) are planted in about 10 yards of imported soil. The side facing the street has a short wall, which will act as a bumper catcher if any errant cars head his way, says Michael.
The interior of the narrow front yard is now semi-private. A low cement wall surrounds the interior length of the yard, and the berm slopes into the lawn and is planted with some agapanthus and blue fescue. As a finishing touch, they installed two small boulders which lean into each other. "It's become a nice enclosed space instead of a landing strip," says Michael.
Arborvitae are often chosen for a front border because they are tall and narrow, and can fit even in small yards. They are also evergreen, which means they are effective screens in all seasons. You need to water carefully, taking care not to over or under water these plants, so they keep their emerald green color. The Popes' plants receive some shade, which helps keep them in good condition.
Theresa Massong, owner of Higher Standards Landscaping in Central Point, suggests Leyland cypress (X Cupressocyparis leylandii) as a faster growing alternative to arborvitae. "In three years you can have a beautiful hedge," she says.
Bred in England, the Leyland cypress is a hybrid — off-spring of the American trees Monterey cypress and Nootka cypress. For fast growth, the Leyland cypress has few competitors: it grows 3 to 4 feet a year, provides a thick screen and has few pest problems. Massong recommends that 7 to 8-foot plants should be placed 10 to 12 feet apart in a planting bed at least 3 1/2; feet wide. Once they've grown to the height you prefer, these trees should be topped. When they've filled in the spaces between them, begin clipping them to keep them within their border. It's a once a year job, explains Mossong.
Don't let Leyland cypress go untended; its earliest specimens now stand 120 feet tall and are still growing. Like juniper, this plant is flammable, so keep it away from houses and make sure to plant it where the neighbors won't consider it a trespasser. If you have a small yard and want a garden, it's not the best choice.
Mixing an evergreen border with deciduous plants is less formal and has more seasonal interest. European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), has been used as a border plant for centuries and tolerates hedging very well.
David Bish, of Plant Oregon in Talent, is introducing alternatives to these often chosen hedging plants. Using a variety called 'Flame,' he's growing shrubby willows pruned into fence sections. The spring and summer color of the hedge is a vibrant green. When the cold arrives, leaves fall off and the exposed network of twigs turns bright orange. Use red twig dogwood the same way and the winter "fence" will be purply-red. "You can still see through it, but it's quite dense," says Bish. Mix it up with other evergreens and you've got year-round interest.
These alternatives take hedges beyond boring barriers. Just like the Popes' "Sentinels," the right hedging changes the atmosphere. A carefully chosen and well-maintained hedge not only makes good neighbors, it's an ambassador to the entire neighborhood.