Hedges in Suburbia



When the planned community of Greenbelt was created in the ’30s, the landscape plan consisted of trees on their way to grandeur (mostly oaks) and hedges, like the ones in the old photo above.  The shrubs used were and still are euonymus and privet, of which the euonymus are doing pretty well and  the privet, not at all, as you can see from the recent photo below.


Yet, hedges are still encouraged here because, to quote the co-op rules, they’re “a hallmark” of the town and though fences have been erected since the rules were changed to allow pets, “Hedges are still the preferred fencing in our community because they help preserve our historical legacy. Well-maintained hedges are a beautiful community asset.”

And of course there are rules about hedges (because we’re chockful of rules here): “Hedges should be kept in a neat and uniform appearance at all times.”  The rules also state that they can’t be taller than 42 inches, though that rule isn’t enforced, thanks to residents complaining about the lack of privacy.  (Hear, hear!)

So with hedges all around me, I’m suddenly interested in them as a landscape feature, and of course discovered that their purpose is to enclose fields to keep the livestock in.  Also, I learned that a “hedgerow” is a hedge that’s of “sufficient age to incorporate larger trees,” according to Wikipedia.  More tidbits:  There’s evidence that hedges have been used for this purpose since at least 4000 B.C., and many hedgerows in the U.K., Ireland and The Netherlands are estimated to have been in existence for over 700 years, originating in the medieval period.  Now that’s some historical legacy.

So it’s no surprise that hedges have been legislated over in hedge-filled countries, allowing for their removal when farm sizes were increasing and more recently, their replanting for the benefit of wildlife.  Hedge height is subject to law in the U.K., specifically the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003.  (Seriously.)  For a hedge to qualify as anti-social it must be made up of a line of two or more evergreen or semi-evergreen trees or shrubs, over 2 meters high, and be a barrier to light or access.

Judging from the tallest hedges in my neighborhood, towering walls of Arborvitae or bamboo (which was once encouraged and is now verboten) I have to agree that tall hedges seem pretty anti-social.

So I have to ask:  In small townhouse-sized yards, with no livestock in sight, what’s the purpose of hedges, anyway?  The short ones offer no privacy and the tall ones are anti-social.  Hedges don’t keep dogs in the yard.  And oh, they’re high-maintenance!  Remember they must be “neat and uniform in appearance at all times,” which no amount of shearing will achieve when the occasional shrub in a hedges dies for some reason, which happens with some regularity.

That brings us to a far better kind of hedge, practically and aesthetically – a tapestry of plants, rather than that uniform row of supposed perfection.  A mix of species, heights and widths.  In other words, a border.  Then it look like a garden, not a miniature English manor.

Though in a large, grand garden with a whole staff to maintain it, hedges sure can be nice.  I love this one at Ladew Topiary Gardens.



  1. I have a love/hate relationship with all my privet hedge that totally edges the property. It is so appropriate for the 1920’s house. It is so much work. The neighbors have wire animal fencing inthe middle of their privat.

  2. I like having a hedge for privacy, but the mosquitos love it for cover. My neighbour also doesn’t maintain it so there are many weed trees that start to grow in it. I need it 4 meters or so high to hide my neighbour’s ugly house that is two storeys high, but since we are on a hill, and I am at the bottom in a bungalow, it seems like it is looming over us.

  3. I ripped out my privet hedge and replaced with a low (2ft) stone wall. Couldn’t be happier. We never could keep the maintenance up and it blocked sun, view and space. The stone wall frames a wide border on one side and a large magnolia tree on the other, which now gets appropriate focus. The wall is sitting height and great for Memorial Day parade – definitely more social!

    I wish I could have convinced my neighbor to replace the hedge between our properties as well, but no dice. In general I don’t mind the hedge, if the rest of the yard is interesting, but you tend to get the strict lawn+hedge combo which is just … Boring.

  4. I would hate to banish clipped hedges altogether. I think the work of designers like Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith shows how effective the contrast between severely formal geometry and exuberant planting can be. In my small backyard garden, I have a ciipped euonymus hedge that’s there for no other purpose than to lend a sense of restraint and tranquility to an otherwise somewhat chaotic jumble of plants. A mixed “taspestry” hedge wouldn’t do that.

  5. Who said anything about banning hedges? I love them in the gardens you mentioned, where they’re grown to great effect by people who choose them and know what they’re doing. I AM suggesting that hedges not be encouraged, though. Or especially required, as they once were here.

  6. Hedges serve a lot of the same functions as a fence (especially if there is wire inside), without seeming as unfriendly. I’m a proponent of regional styles. I want to be able to look around me and know what part of the country I’m in. If hedges are a part of that (living as you do in an older part of the country, they probably go back to the day when they were needed to keep livestock out of the garden), I’m for them. Especially, if one selects naturally tidy growers that don’t need a lot of shearing.

    • PS. When we first moved into our current house, my husband (a former architect) wanted to surround the front with “antisocial” hedges. I said no. I don’t say no to him often, but I put my foot down. I put in a deep border with assorted shrubs and trees that will give us a sense of separation without blocking out the neighborhood. He is still whining five years later. The only hedges traditional out here in Seattle are monstrous English laurel hedges. I won’t do that for soooooo many reasons.

  7. The subject of hedges is indeed subjective. It’s partly about one’s vision and partly about one’s commitment to maintenance, Also, hedges are formal, geometric, and architectural. A tapestry of plants is informal and sometimes messy- oops! I meant natural. Homeowners have preconceived ideas about what the exterior of their properties ought to look like. “To each his/her own”.

  8. Imagine hilly to mountainous terrain with large houses on small lots with teeny tiny side yards and a freakish need for privacy. No one wants to see or speak to their neighbor. They don’t want to see a speck of their house. Toss in “The View” that must be maintained at all costs, to the point of plotting against your neighbor’s trees and shrubberies. Hedges in this environment may need to be in the 10 to 15 foot height range to achieve the desired goal. Then they must be maintained at these heights less “The View” be obstructed. Stone walls are good, but code won’t let them be high enough along many boundary situations. A stone wall with a tall hedge is mo betta.

    I’m not fond of hedges.

  9. I would only use privet as a quick temporary cover whilst something more pleasant grew in. Despite the warning of Clima-geddon from Algore there is serious die back on privet most winters

    The TROLL

  10. There is a deep rooted anti fence/ hedge sentiment in this country- “Don’t fence me in” attitude towards hedges. The rich do not share in that value – have you ever noticed the 30′ foot hedges in the Hamptons or the use of the word in finance “hedge fund.”

    I like hedges because they provide a nice dark foliage to show off plants. They also provide an important habitat for birds and other small creatures in the garden. They are an important design tool in creating garden rooms. If you would like to read a more in depth article about hedges- see link below: Best Don


  11. We have a tall, mixed hedge on the west side of our back garden. It’s there for privacy, but I like it aesthetically. The hedge has includes plants I like and some I don’t. There are shrub honeysuckles, which are invasive and I am trying to gradually remove. There are also forsythia, blackhaw viburnum, privet, and mock orange, among other things.

  12. Hedgerows in the UK can be dated by how many different shrubs & trees are growing in them, a fact I find most interesting.

  13. I’m not anti hedge, but uniform hedges are very hard to keep uniform. If they’re not, it defeats the purpose of having a uniform hedge. Tapestry hedges or shrubby borders are easier to maintain as well as more interesting.

  14. If it’s a choice between hedges and the hideous, cheap stockade fencing that so many people are putting up, I’ll take a hedge every time.

  15. My neighbor has, between our houses, a privet hedge which her incompetent gardener spends 6 hours a month trimming. It takes so long because he goes down the line and then it’s crooked and then he has to do it again. I try not to be home. Of course if he knows I am not home he comes on my side and tramples my ground cover and bulbs.
    This is of course with mostly gas powered tools. And he trims it incorrectly so that now there is just a thin sheen of growth, in what there is that is still alive, with no foliage at all in the middle.
    Privet is not boxwood. Get the boxwood if that is the look you want.
    Privet is also incredibly invasive. It is all over my yard now. I let some grow big and ugly to annoy her and provide more screening while some trees fill in.
    Am I too sensitive? My husband says so.

  16. I like the idea of hedgerows where there’s enough room for them. Multiple species, a little wild, lots of cover and food for wildlife. Unexpected bursts of bloom in random patterns.

    But I hate hedges, especially when they are incorrectly pruned or when the wrong types of shrubs are hacked into hedgelike shapes. It’s rare to see a correctly pruned hedge: narrower at the top than the bottom, to give the foliage enough light. More common is the top-heavy hedge, narrow at the bottom because not enough space was allocated for it, with a hulking mess of dead branches and sickly foliage, widest at the top. These sorry shrubs are a hazard in urban suburbia, where they obstruct sidewalks and force walkers to squeeze by in single file.

  17. A border is a fantastic solution. Why has no one considered it before? In fact, all the hedges have been really acting at is a border – a marker between MY land and PUBLIC land – or possibly a neighbors. Good thinking, Susan!

  18. Hedges have there place but they’re tiresome and expensive to sustain. When done well I love the aesthetics, particularly as showcased at Ladew above, but they’re not for me

  19. I have a row of privet screening my garage from my neighbor’s front steps. Our houses are very close to each other and privet is easy to keep narrow. It’s up to the second story now, after 10 years and provides afternoon shade to their house. I love it. It’s healthy and full of wrens. One heavy snow brought down some branches, but they cleaned up easily and otherwise it does it’s job a lot better than a fence. Invasive? not around here.

  20. I hate my hedges. Too much maintenance and the attract mosquitos. Will get rid of them as soon as I figure out what to replace them with.

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