Growing hedges will provide valuable privacy & windbreaks

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Formal Hedges. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamFormal Hedges. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamHedges are an integral part of many gardens, providing windbreaks and privacy as well as dividing the garden into various "rooms". If carefully chosen the plants will compliment your planting scheme, providing a valuable backdrop for flowering plants, bulbs and seedlings.

A wide range of beautiful hedging plants are available at nurseries; some with evergreen leaves and others like roses, which lose their leaves in winter but make up for this by producing beautiful flowers or berries. Many plants can be grown both as formal or informal hedges but always choose tough, reliable plants that are not prone to dying off easily and are suitable for your climatic region. To avoid having to spray for pests and diseases, select plants that are relatively disease free.

Buxus Hedge & Teak Bench. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamBuxus Hedge & Teak Bench. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamTrimming your hedge can become quite a chore, so choose slower growing plants; unless you need a very fast growing screen and simply can't wait. Informal hedges are a lot less maintenance, whereas formal hedges may require trimming every six to eight weeks in summer. Tall formal hedges are hard to reach, so try to keep your formal hedges below 1.5m tall.

If you require a tall formal hedge, remember that the base needs to be wider than the top so that it does not look top-heavy and so that sunlight and rain can penetrate. To establish this shape, build an A-frame to establish the correct oblique angles and stretch string across the frame to act as guidelines for pruning.

Photinia 'Red Robin' Hedge. Picture courtesy Leonora Enking. Visit her flickr photostreamPhotinia 'Red Robin' Hedge. Picture courtesy Leonora Enking. Visit her flickr photostreamPlants that have colourful new growth are excellent to use as hedging plants as, after each clipping, the new growth will bring colour to your hedge. Some of the best varieties are; Red Robin (Photinia x fraseri) and Australian brush cherry (Syzygium paniculatum).

Informal hedges are easy to care for and medium sized shrubs such as Escallonia spp. or Acuba japonica will need only the occasional trimming to keep them neat. Plants with large leaves like Camelia sasanqua and Japanese Laurel (Aucuba japonica) make good informal hedges, but need to be trimmed with secateurs to prevent the leaves being torn and turning brown. This can be quite time consuming so use them in short boundaries, rather than very long stretches. Alternatively, you could use shears or a hedge trimmer just before the main flush of new growth in spring, so that the new growth will hide the damaged leaves.

Buxus Stone with alternating stone walls. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamBuxus Stone with alternating stone walls. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamIf you are planting a hedge at the back of a garden bed, avoid plants that grow too quickly or too large, requiring lots of feeding and water; like large Conifers, Privets or Photinia. These plants will take precious water and nutrients away from the flowers and shrubs in the bed. Also avoid plants with thorns like Carissa, Holly, Mahonia and Berberis, that drop prickly litter that could make maintenance difficult. Leave at least a 90cm access pathway between the bed and the hedge for easy maintenance.  If you are planting a hedge in front of a wall, allow at least 1m space between the wall and the plants for growth.
 
Boxwood Hedge. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamBoxwood Hedge. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamHedges can provide good security barriers and prickly plants such as Pyracantha and Carissa macrocarpa are excellent choices but be aware that cleaning up the thorny litter will be difficult.

If you wish to create an ornate knot garden of hedges, an easy method of marking out the design is to use a long rope to lay out the plan onto the soil. In Elizabethan times this method was employed and the rope was then smeared with honey and seeds, before being buried in the ground.

To save time on maintenance and the aftercare of your hedge it is essential that you prepare well before planting. Firstly, dig a wide trench at least 60cm wide and deep, along the entire proposed run of the hedge. This is harder than digging individual holes, but will pay off in the long run, because the plants will grow quicker and more uniformly. Dig in generous quantities of compost and a dressing of bone meal and 2:3:2.

Angled Hedge. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamAngled Hedge. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamInstall an irrigation line with drippers so that the hedge can be easily watered until it is established. Another trick, to conserve moisture, keep the weeds down and to prevent frost damage to the roots of young plants in winter is to lay down a weed mat like Bidum and to plant the shrubs through this by cutting crosses in the fabric to plant through. Sheets of newspaper or hessian can also be used. Cover the material with bark mulch or dried leaves. The trenches need to settle before planting, so flood the trench with water and let it lie for a week, before planting.

Curved Taxus Hedge. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamCurved Taxus Hedge. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamAfter planting, prune your plants down by about 1/3 to encourage bushiness and continually pinch out long shoots during the growing season. Many new gardeners are not keen to cut back their plants, as they want their hedge to grow tall quickly. What they don't realise is that their plants will grow better, with bushy growth right from their base, if they are cut severely when still young. The end result will be a well-balanced plant. Don't forget to mulch newly planted shrubs to conserve moisture.

Trim your hedge regularly because once a hedge becomes 'leggy' it can be virtually impossible to get it back into shape again and can take several seasons. If it does become neglected and is growing out of hand, most evergreen plants can be pruned back hard in mid-spring, when all danger of frost is over. Such severe pruning is not recommended for many fast growing conifers like the Leyland cypress. For overgrown deciduous hedges try severely pruning them over two seasons. In the Three Edge Hedge. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamThree Edge Hedge. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens. Visit his flickr photostreamfirst season prune only one side of the hedge; and the other side the following season. Cut out all weak, dead and twiggy growth right back to the main stems and shorten all other healthy branches by cutting them back close to the main stems. Leave the plants to grow all summer and, if growth is good, you can prune the other side of the hedge the next season. It is essential to mulch with compost, water regularly and to fertilise your plants after pruning. Plants that respond well to severe pruning include Berberis, Bottlebrush, Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), Grevillea, Holly and the Red Robin (Photinia)

If you have a large garden, consider planting a wildlife hedge to provide food, shelter and homes for birds, butterflies insects and other small animals. The minimum depth for a good wildlife hedge would be about 4 to 5m and it should consist of a mixture of trees, shrubs and groundcovers that are known to attract wildlife. The plants you select can be indigenous or a mixture of indigenous and exotic.  Planting a greater diversity of plants of various heights will provide more niches for creatures. If a hedge like this is carefully planned it can be left to grow unchecked for many years, or with a minimum of maintenance. Minimum disturbance is best for the creatures that inhabit it too. You can tidy up occasionally but never remove hollow branches as these provide nesting sites for birds and animals.