The Best Shrubs for Making Hedges

Using Hedging Plants to Create a Living Wall

Hedges in a formal garden
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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 plants rather than fences, ​select shrubs that have thorns such as hawthorns (Crataegus) or prickly leaves such as English holly.

But security is not the only practical function that hedges can serve. Hedges may also be used to create privacy screens or windbreaks. For these two purposes, you will need taller shrubs.

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    Japanese Holly

    ilex crenata convexa (japanese holly) (agm) (female) with black berries.
    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 to 4 feet in height, with a similar spread. 

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    English Holly

    English holly with berries.
     Angel Villalba/Getty Images

    English holly (Ilex aquifolium), with its prickly leaves, makes a better hedge plant than Japanese holly if you wish to combine security with aesthetic considerations. This is one type of holly that grows big enough (the Ferox Argentea cultivar is 15 feet tall x 8 to 10 feet wide) to serve as a privacy screen. English holly is hardy to USDA planting zone 6. 

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    Barberry Bushes

    Barberry plant with thorns and berries.
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    Another prickly shrub is barberry (Berberis thunbergii). Sharp thorns line the plant's branches. This fact long made barberry popular among homeowners seeking a security hedge. Its bright red berries offer a decorative component. It is a deciduous shrub, but the berries persist through the cold-weather months to provide winter interest. Plus the thorns are present year-round to discourage intruders.

    Until recently, barberry had fallen out of favor in North America due to its invasive nature. But the development of new, noninvasive cultivars may lead to a North American barberry revival.

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    Boxwood Shrubs

    Buxus (Buxus sempervirens) hedge bordering gravel path
    Francois De Heel / Getty Images

    Boxwoods (Buxus) are the classic hedge plants. These broadleaf evergreens were adored by aristocratic Europeans for centuries as defining elements in formal garden design. North Americans living in deer country have found a new reason to love boxwood hedges: They are deer-resistant shrubs.

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    Mountain Laurels

    Mountain Laurel in Bloom
    Georgianna Lane / Getty Images

    Other broadleaf evergreens suitable as hedge plants include the mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia). A bonus with mountain laurels is that they bloom in late spring-early summer. Don't try to trim laurels as you would boxwoods: They look better when allowed to grow into their natural mature shape. The pink-flowering types are most popular.

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    Yew Bushes

    Yew (Taxus baccata) berries. October
    Colin Varndell / Getty Images

    Among needle-bearing evergreens, yew bushes (Taxus) 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. They are also too poisonous to grow around children.

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    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.

    Lilac bushes (Syringa) are one of your more fragrant choices. 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. 

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    Rose of Sharon

    Image of pink rose of Sharon flower with deep pink throat and prominent stamen.
    David Beaulieu

    Another deciduous shrub commonly found in hedges is the rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). It is a valuable plant for gardeners wishing to maintain continuous sequence of bloom because it is one of the late-summer flowering shrubs, furnishing color during a season when many other bushes have already finished blooming for the year.

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    A forsythia hedge (image) is set off by evergreens. It's a striking driveway planting.
    David Beaulieu

    Forsythia bushes (Forsythia x intermedia) are one of the first plants to bloom in spring. You probably won't want to prune them as meticulously as you would, say, boxwood. Most people agree that these early-spring flowering shrubs look best when allowed to "have a bad hair day." 

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    Privet Hedges

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

    Like mountain laurels, privets (Ligustrum) are broadleaf shrubs that put out flowers (although their white flowers aren't much of a selling point). However, not all varieties of 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 privets in your area. Also check to see if they are invasive in your region.

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    Hedge of pink azaleas at top of ocean-side cliff.
    Maya Karkalicheva/Getty Images

    As with privets, azaleas can be either evergreen or deciduous. But their flowers are far superior to those on privets. Stewartstonian azalea (Rhododendron x Gable Stewartstonian) has it all:

    But azaleas come in many colors, with pink, white, orange, and yellow all popular choices.

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    Arborvitae trees in a garden (Thuja occidentalis Smaragd)
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    Arborvitae shrubs (Thuja) have a dense growth habit that makes them popular privacy screens or windbreaks. There are many types of arborvitae; they come in various sizes, shapes, and colors. ​North Pole and Emerald Green are just about the right size for most hedge growers; Green Giant, which can become 60 feet tall, is too big for small properties.

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    Canadian Hemlocks

    Hemlock tree branch with cones.
    lauraag/Getty Images

    Although trees in the wild, Canadian hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are often sold in shrub form for use in hedges. The MacPhail Woods site 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.