The Best Shrubs and Trees to Make Hedges

Using Hedging Plants to Create a Living Wall

Hedges in a formal garden
brytta/Getty Images

A "hedge" is a living wall composed of plants. Some are purely decorative, while others serve primarily a practical function. Hedge plants used decoratively are often trimmed to precise sizes and shapes and include evergreen and deciduous shrubs. Such shrubs may also serve the practical function of affording a property some security.

Almost any row of densely growing hedge plants will enhance security to some degree. If you need a higher level of security, but still wish to stick to hedge...MORE plants rather than fences, ​select shrubs or small trees that have thorns such as hawthorns or prickly leaves such as holly.

But security is not the only practical function that hedges can serve. Hedges may also be used to create privacy screens or windbreaks, in which cases small trees are often employed (either exclusively or mixed with shrubs). The plants in such privacy screens or windbreaks are commonly allowed to grow naturally, rather than trimmed to a particular size and shape unless the grower wishes to combine decorative and practical functions.

  • 01 of 09
    ilex crenata convexa (japanese holly) (agm) (female) with black berries, october
    Sunniva Harte / Getty Images

    Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) looks more like a boxwood shrub than holly shrub, bearing small, oval leaves. Many cultivars of this broadleaf evergreen are available. For hedge plants, most people select those that reach 3–4 feet in height, with a similar spread. Japanese holly is hardy to zone 6. But English holly (Ilex aquifolium), with its prickly leaves, makes a better hedge plant if you wish to combine security with aesthetic considerations. Some hollies grow tall enough to serve as privacy...MORE screens

  • 02 of 09
    Buxus (Buxus sempervirens) hedge bordering gravel path
    Francois De Heel / Getty Images

    Boxwoods are the classic hedge plants. These broadleaf evergreens were adored by aristocratic Europeans for centuries as defining elements in formal garden design


  • 03 of 09
    Mountain Laurel in Bloom
    Garden Photo World/Georgianna Lane / Getty Images

    Other broadleaf evergreens suitable as hedge plants include the mountain laurels. A bonus with mountain laurels is that they bloom in late spring-early summer. Don't try to trim laurels as you would boxwoods. 

  • 04 of 09
    Yew (Taxus baccata) berries. October
    Colin Varndell / Getty Images

    Among needle-bearing evergreens, yew bushes are perhaps the classic hedge plants. They are popular, partly because they tolerate shade. Some yews grow tall enough to serve as privacy screens. However, yews are slow growers.

    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    Deciduous Hedge Shrubs

    Purple lilacs next to a fence.
    OGphoto / Getty Images

    Deciduous hedge shrubs look great while they're in bloom, but just so-so during the winter. Also, because they drop their leaves and stand naked for part of the year, deciduous shrubs make for less than ideal privacy screens.

    Three of the deciduous shrubs most commonly found in hedges are rose of sharonforsythia bushes, and lilac bushes. But you probably won't want to prune any of these as meticulously as you would, say, boxwood. Most people agree that forsythia, in particular, looks...MORE best when it is allowed to "have a bad hair day."

    To form a hedge with such a shrub, simply plant several of them in a line. Don't fuss with making them conform to precise, predetermined dimensions. 

  • 06 of 09

    Other Hedge Shrubs

    ligustrum vulgare (privet) pruned into round flowing shape - hedge, front town garden, april
    Janet Johnson / Getty Images

    Like mountain laurels, azaleas and privets are broadleaf shrubs that put out flowers (the former much more impressively). However, not all varieties of azaleas and privets are evergreen and those that are will not necessarily grow well in your zone. Check with your local county extension to see if you can grow evergreen azaleas or privets in your area. If not, you can treat azaleas and privets as you would the other hedge shrubs in the prior category (deciduous).​

  • 07 of 09
    Arborvitae trees in a garden (Thuja occidentalis Smaragd)
    DEA/RANDOM / Getty Images

    Arborvitae trees have a dense growth habit that makes them popular privacy screens or windbreak trees (arborvitaes are also found in shrub-form if you're seeking a shorter hedge). There are many types of arborvitae; they come in various sizes, shapes, and colors.

  • 08 of 09
    Beech Tree (Fagus sylvatica), Stourhead, Wiltshire, England, UK
    Tony Howell / Getty Images

    In Europe, European Beech trees have been used for centuries as privacy screens and windbreak trees. Windbreak trees are commonly allowed to grow naturally, rather than trimmed to a particular size and  shape unless you wish to combine decorative and practical functions.

    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09
    Arbor Day
    Photo- Joanne Levesque / Getty Images

    Canadian hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are among the easiest trees to prune into hedges. states, "Prune hemlock lightly but often during the first few growing seasons (two to three times from late June to late August for two to three years). After three years prune once, in late June, as with white spruce." The site cautions against cutting the leaders until the hemlock hedge or windbreak has attained the height you envisioned for it.

How to Prune Shrub Hedges

Do not prune hedge plants so as to form a wall straight-up-and-down. Rather, prune hedges so that the base is wider than the top (a shape sometimes referred to as an "inverted keystone"). This will allow sufficient sunlight to reach the growth at the bottom, keeping it healthy. To aid you in the task of pruning hedge plants, you'll probably want to invest in a hedge trimmer and make sure you have a tape measure handy.

The key to straight and level lines is to lay out a foolproof network of guides before cutting, using stakes and string. Pruning hedges is truly a case of, "You get what you put into it." If you measure carefully with a tape measure and place your guides exactly where they should be, then you'll get a precisely trimmed hedge. But if you just try to "eyeball it," then the end result​ will reflect your haste. It's that simple. Hedges are not for homeowners who desire low-maintenance landscaping.