What You'll Learn

  1. Mistakes 1 - 2
  2. Mistakes 3 - 5
Mistake #3: Not shaping a hedge so the top is narrower than the bottom

Left alone, most hedges will start to widen at the top, where they receive the most sunlight. This results in a V shape that shades out lower branches so they produce less and less foliage. "You want to turn that V upside down," says Roger. A sheared hedge should always be wider at the bottom and narrower at the top, whether that top is flat, pointed, or rounded. When shearing, start at the bottom and work up toward the top. For absolute precision cutting, you can also run a string line between stakes to ensure an even line along the top, but Roger prefers to rely on his eye for a more natural look.

Remember that once you buzz-cut the top of a plant, it is more prone to snow damage (broken branches) because it won't shed snow as readily. Tall hedges benefit from being tied up for winter—just be sure to use rope or chain lock (plastic tree-guying material) rather than hose-covered wire, which can girdle the trunks if left on too long.

Mistake #4: Trying to maintain shrubs that are too tall or too wide for their space

If you're starting from scratch, choose plants that lend themselves to making a hedge, meaning they naturally grow upright and tight—the words 'columnar' or 'fastigiate' in the name indicate that kind of growing habit. For formal hedges, those shrubs will also need to tolerate shearing and frequent pruning, like yew, privet, and boxwood. Generally, a hedge needs a minimum of 3 feet in width. When it comes to height, keeping your hedge at about eye level will make maintenance easier; otherwise, be prepared to climb a ladder to get at the upper reaches.

The best course is to figure out how high and wide you want your hedge to be before you plant. "Research the habit of any plant you want to hedge," says Roger, "then choose a variety that won't overgrow your space. Otherwise you'll be fighting an uphill battle trying to cut the hedge down to size."

Good choices for larger, more naturally shaped evergreen hedges that require minimal pruning include western arborvitae, eastern red cedar, juniper, cypress, hemlock, fastigiate white pine, and some varieties of holly. Where four-season foliage isn't needed, you might consider informal hedges of flowering shrubs, such as forsythia, lilac, hydrangea, rose of sharon, crape myrtle, or rugo­sa roses.

Mistake #5: Growing a hedge when you really need a screen planting

Don't expect a hedge to provide a lot of privacy or to block an unwanted view. Hedgees are generally maintained at 6 to 8 feet high; privacy plantings can rise 30 feet. In general, screen plantings are much wider, too, made up of a mix of staggered evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennials for a natural look. "Let a hedge be a hedge—an attractive shrub border that encloses your yard and unifies the landscape," says Roger. "If privacy's what you're after, start looking at big trees."
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