Creating a Privacy Hedge: Part II
Picking, positioning, and purchasing native plants
Privacy-Seeking Newbie asked how to create a low-maintenance, deer-resistant hedge of native plants in the Hudson Valley (NY), from concept to planting. My last blog post fleshed out the parameters for this tapestry hedge using Doug Kent’s 10 attributes of a restorative landscape (read how here). Now, I’ll address the rest of their questions: which plants, how many, and where to purchase.
As promised, here’s how to create a privacy hedge that fits your parameters for less than $2,500 — far less and far more restorative than a cedar fence.
To start, let’s focus on what’s local and authentic to your area. Because what’s local and authentic feels right these days. A community under maples such as you have on your property would be a woodland. To find what grew under maples in your area before Europeans cleared the land, I searched for “Hudson Valley forest shrubs.” Google yielded this description from Rutherford Platt’s The Great American Forest on New York Woodlands:
A hallmark of modern [post-ice age] hardwood forests is an understory of flowering trees and shrubs, including sassafras, viburnum, amelanchier, magnolia, laurel. All these species were present here in the Late Cretaceous some 65 million years ago, as we know from fossils found in Cretaceous rocks on Long Island and in New Jersey. Hollies are the most ancient of our species, originating nearly 90 million years ago, disappearing at one point, then reappearing in our post-glacial era.
Platt’s list of characteristic flowering understory shrubs suggests arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). These are medium-sized shrubs, over six feet tall and wide. Together they meet many of your parameters–four-season visual interest, nurturing birds, attracting butterflies, and an evergreen (the laurel).
How many plants?
A 40 by 10 foot tapestry hedge with a four-foot path can’t fit too many six-foot-plus diameter plants. Planting in a zig-zag pattern fits more shrubs than a straight line. Zig-zag planting will look more natural, too. And closer planting along the horizontal axis will mean more privacy sooner — one of your goals, while limiting their mature sizes.
Look at the schema above to see how this might work. It shows half your hedge (18 by 10 feet) plus the path. Four shrubs of roughly six-foot spread at maturity fit into the space. A few smaller shrubs of about four-foot diameter (or large clumping perennials) fill out the desired area and add variety. Note how the smaller shrubs tuck between the larger ones to maximize coverage when viewed from your house.
For coherence and rhythm in the design, you’ll want to repeat plants. For example, you could plant four different larger species and two or three smaller species to the left of the path, then flip the pattern so it’s a mirror image on the right side. Longer term, repeat shrubs elsewhere on your property for continuity throughout — plus all the added beauty and wildlife value.
Fleshing out the plant palette
For winter privacy, consider a second evergreen shrub. Fragrant northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) comes to mind.
For smaller shrubs, consider fabulously fragrant summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica). Like the arrowwood viburnum and mountain laurel, these have white blossoms. White wild indigo (Baptisia alba) is a large clumping perennial, could act as a shrub; baptisias are nitrogen fixers that improve soil for other plants.
You’ll want to plant low perennial groundcovers between the shrubs — lots and lots of them. They act as green mulch, provide wildlife value, and look great. The initial depth of your hedge area, defined by the groundcovers, can be less than 10 feet, but large enough to mow around without damaging the shrubs. Figuring one small plant per square foot, you’ll need a couple of hundred plugs to cover the area under and around your shrubs. Then encourage the groundcovers to grow out into your lawn as the shrubs grow.
To learn more about the above plants and to find others that meet your parameters, I recommend Uli Lorimer’s The Northeast Native Plant Primer. In addition, the Native Plant Trust’s Plant Finder, which covers your Northern Highlands ecoregion, lets you search by various criteria, including deer/rabbit resistant. [Readers in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Southeast can find similar native plant primers at Timber Press. And readers nationwide can use Audubon’s Native Plants Database and the database at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.]
Where to buy native plants?
It's worthwhile looking at what’s available before narrowing down your list too much, because finding plants when you need them is often the hardest part of gardening with natives. To get your hedge started, you’ll want to order soon for fall delivery. Planting early fall – after the weather cools and rainfall is more regular – is less stressful for the plants (and you) and leaves them some time to root before the ground freezes.
Optimally, you buy local ecoregion plants that have been raised in your area. Here’s my advice on how to find native nurseries, nationwide. You can also order most of the above shrubs through the Audubon program at Bower and Branch. Make sure to specify a delivery timeframe.
The most cost-effective way to buy hundreds of groundcover plants is to buy plugs – very small deep-rooted plants. Unfortunately, most local nurseries don’t carry plugs. You can order plugs online from various wholesalers in the Northeast (as well as Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Southeast) at Izel . For example, Northcreek Nurseries in Pennsylvania, relatively close to you, offers plugs for Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata), Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), and Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), among others. Izel will also let you specify a shipping date.
Finally, here’s my untraditional advice for how to plant your shrubs and groundcovers. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on a cool new tool to make planting a dozen shrubs and hundreds of plants much easier.
— The Avant Gardener
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