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5 Design Ideas for Sheared Shrubs

These living fences can set off areas in your yard and solve a multitude of problems. Here are pro tips and design ideas for shearing success

Add Living Architecture to Your Yard

Photo by Mark Lohman

For centuries gardeners have been clipping and shaping shrubs as a way of defining areas of their property. And not only for aesthetic reasons. After all, a beautiful wall of greenery is less expensive to construct than a wall of brick or stone. Leaving aside fussy topiaries of cute animals, the geometric forms that shearing can produce—rectangular walls, boxy columns, pointed cones—turn shrubs into green architecture, enabling them to create boundaries, establish sight lines, direct traffic, and highlight focal points in the landscape.

The garden shown here sits behind a historic English-style Arts and Crafts home in Pasadena, California, its formal structure designed to complement the strong lines of the house. Though the garden is impressive, don't be intimidated. There are lessons you can learn from its use of formal hedging and clipped shrubs to apply to virtually any yard or garden, large or small.

1. Fill Out Problem Areas in the Yard

Photo by Mark Lohman

It would be hard to keep a tidy year-round planting of perennials under the heavy shade of this rose arbor. A small pea-gravel pad edged with clipped boxwood solves the problem without detracting from the glorious blooms of the climbing 'Eden' rose above it. In late summer, when the rose stops blooming, the area becomes a restful green oasis with a more restrained, formal feeling. Use ball or square shaped hedges to mark the entrance to a path or frame a sight line.

TOH Tip: The best hedging plants reliably make leaf buds on old wood, that is, on previous years' growth instead of sprouting only on new branches. This way, if you cut back older sections, new leaves will sprout readily. Boxwood (especially Buxus sempervirens), English holly, common myrtle, English laurel, copper beech, and Irish yew should also bud from the bottom to the top so that there is leaf coverage all the way up. Not all shrubs do this, so you tend to see the same hedging plants used again and again.

2. Use Low Borders to Direct Traffic

Photo by Mark Lohman

In the main garden, boxwood marks a firm line between the lawn and the flower beds, eliminating the need for decorative brick or metal edging. Repeating a variety of shapes keeps the plantings dynamic. Boxwood balls and rectangles punctuate the edging at consistent intervals. Treelike cones of clipped wax-leaved privet flank the entrance like columns. Consider placing sheared shrubs on either side of an arbor—or your front door—for a formal accent.

3. Create Layers of Enclosure

Photo by Mark Lohman

In a small side garden, a low boxwood hedge forms a semicircle to highlight a statue, which is surrounded by fragrant lavender. You could do the same for a birdbath or other focal point. In the background, clipped plantings of tall which add privacy by screening the security fence behind it.

TOH TIP: Time rejuvenation pruning to be least traumatic. In cold areas, spring is the best time to cut back formal hedges. That way plants can regroup, put on plenty of new growth from summer to fall, and be healthy enough to get through a harsh winter. Most plants tolerate surface shearing as needed over the course of the growing season. How often will depend on the type of plant used and the growing conditions.

4. Mix Plants for More Interest

Photo by Mark Lohman

Two or more kinds of plants can make sheared edging more varied and interesting. On this patio, cones of rosemary mark the corners of a small rectangle of boxwood that sits on top

of a masonry square. This three-part arrangement makes an attractive base, almost like a planter, for a sculptural crepe myrtle

tree. In colder climates, dwarf Alberta spruce could be used in place of the tender rosemary plants.

5. Conceal the Shortcomings of Leggy Plants

Photo by Mark Lohman

This low hedge of boxwood makes a skirt that hides the unsightly bare bases of rosebushes. Because it provides a strong framework for the loose and romantic-looking beds, they can be filled with many kinds of roses and perennials—and maybe even a few weeds.

TOH Tip: Shape hedges so that the bottom is slightly wider than the top. Narrowing as you go from bottom to top keeps hedges fuller by allowing more sunlight to reach leaves. This prevents unattractive holes in the surface of the hedge and, worse, bare branches around the base. Though the difference may be barely perceptible, for a 10-foot-tall hedge the sides should slope as much as 4 to 6 inches from base to top. Some people set four posts and run level string lines along the top and bottom as guides to get a consistent shape.