They stop wind, block ugly views, double as fences, define spaces, house birds, muffle noise and provide a foil for loose, herbaceous plantings. What can’t a hedge do for a garden? I want one wrapping all the way around mine, and more of them artfully threaded throughout.
And this is the season, when the bones of the garden are laid bare, to plan for one. The choices are almost infinite: evergreen or deciduous; native or exotic; edible or purely ornamental; mixed or single species; formal or informal.
For as long as there have been gardens there have been hedges. Some of the first were not planted at all but were random mixes of wild shrubs and trees left when surrounding land was cleared. But even in ancient times, hedges were taking more orchestrated turns with the use of pleaching and topiary (which Renaissance gardeners took to new heights). By the early 20th century, hedges were being used to create outdoor “rooms”.
Fashions have kept shifting and in contemporary Australian gardens, you can find it all. There are screens of feijoa, waves of privet and clouds of westringia. There are carefully finessed hedges in front of hedges in front of hedges, all staggered heights and contrasting greens. And there are looser, more informal concoctions of flowering callistemons, fruiting lilly pillies and – more casual still – mixes of species.
The turning point for using Australian plants as hedges was the realisation that many of them not only tolerate pruning but positively flourish with it. They might not be as topiary-friendly as cypress and yew but, just as they have spent millennia being scorched by fire and shorn by wind, cut them back and they only return thicker and tighter.
Westringia fruticosa and the taller W. longifolia have become the renowned recipients of such treatments, but Rhagodia spinescens, Correa alba, Leptospermum obovatum and L. petersonii are all options for low hedges. Lilly pillies (including both Syzygium and Acmena species) can be deployed for taller ones. The new growth of Acmena smithii comes in a range of colours (green to burgundy to chocolate brown) depending on the cultivar you choose, while some lilly pillies, such as Syzygium ‘Cascade’ have a weeping habit and some, such as Syzgium australe ‘Silver Screen’, are variegated.
Alternatively mountain pepper, Tasmannia lanceolata with its small cream flowers followed by dark red berries that turn black in autumn attracts native birds, as do hedges of grevilleas and callistemons, which can be kept as clipped or as shaggy as you like.
The trick is to train your trees or bushes from the start. The general rule is to space your plants about as far apart as the hedge will be wide.
Sometimes they can double as an edible garden. Feijoas are hardy options, standing up to frost and wind. Any feijoa variety works as a hedge but planting at least two ensures a longer and better harvest. As with all hedges, there is a trade-off between quantity of fruit and the tightness of the cut.
Citrus hedges are another edible option, with the added allure of glossy foliage and scented blossoms. A less conventional choice is the common fig (Ficus carica), which provides an especially textured look thanks to its lobed leaves. The pieces you trim when the tree is dormant in winter can be propagated as cuttings.
Being a climber, the creeping fig (Ficus pumila) can never be a true hedge but when trained over a fence, it can look like one. Given appropriate support, all sorts of climbers can stand in for hedges and will grow faster and take less space. But that opens up a whole other set of options, depending on your climate, soil and taste.