Tips for Growing Privet Hedges

Beautifully-manicured privet hedge (Ligustrum). Francois De Heel/Getty Images

A privet hedge running along a property border is a classic look. The very name seems to say "privacy," as if a line of these bushes could form the ideal screen for those seeking a more private setting. Learn all about this storied shrub to find out if it lives up to the hype. 

Classification of Privet Shrubs

Plant taxonomy classifies privet shrubs under the genus, Ligustrum. Indeed, they are commonly referred to as "ligustrum shrubs," too. Privet bushes are so commonly used in hedges that they are often referred to as " privet hedges," as if how they are used in landscaping trumped their identity as a particular kind of shrub.

Depending on plant variety and the zone in which you live, privet hedges can be evergreen, semi-evergreen, or deciduous

Plant Traits, Some Varieties, and Their Growing Zones

Common privet shrubs (Ligustrum vulgare) reach a height of 4 to 15 feet, with a spread of 4 to 8 feet. These fast-growing shrubs, suitable for zones 5 to 8, bear white flowers in late spring or early summer; blackberries succeed the fragrant flowers. Knowing that this plant bears blackberries is useful for identification purposes since this is not an especially common color for a shrub's berry to have (although some types of holly shrubs share this trait with Ligustrum).

These shrubs are grown mainly for the dense foliage they can provide when pruned into hedges. That dense foliage, along with their height, means that they afford good privacy during the summertime when folks are most active in their backyards. Here is a list of some of the various kinds of privet:

  • California privet (L. ovalifolium): zones 5 to 8; 10 to 15 feet high and wide
  • Golden privet (L. ovalifolium Aureum): zones 5 to 8; 8 to 10 feet high and wide
  • Golden Vicary (L. x vicaryi): zones 5 to 7; 6 to 12 feet tall, with a spread of 7 to 10 feet
  • Border privet (L. obtusifolium): zones 3 to 7; 10 to 12 feet tall, with a spread of 12 to 15 feet
  • Amur privet (L. amurense): zones 3 to 6; 12 to 15 feet tall, with a spread of 8 to 15 feet
  • Japanese or "wax" privet (L. japonicum): zones 7 to 10; 6 to 12 feet tall, with a spread of 6 to 8 feet; fragrant flowers; Texanum a popular cultivar
  • Chinese privet (L. sinense): zones 7 to 9; 10 to 12 feet tall, with a spread of 8 to 10 feet; fragrant flowers

Another kind commonly referred to as a "Chinese" privet is L. lucidum (USDA zones 8 to 10), which can grow to be a small tree, reaching a mature height of 20 feet tall.

Michael Dirr critiques these and other types of Ligustrum with his usual swagger in Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs (pages 442 to 449). He calls L. japonicum and L. obtusifolium "respectable," while he seems to have the most disdain for L. sinense, which he describes as "a terrible and devastating escapee that terrorizes floodplains, fencerows, and even open fields...."

Golden and/or variegated leaves are among the best-looking. The leaves of L. ovalifolium Aureum have green centers with golden margins, while Vicary is a solid gold. Dirr also lists some types where the variegated leaves are marked by "gray-green mottling" and "cream-silver edges"; namely, three cultivars of L. japonicum:

  • Jack Frost
  • Silver Star
  • Variegatum

Plant Care Tips: Pruning, Sun and Soil Needs

  • Shear these bushes after they have flowered; thereafter, shear them an additional three or four times during the course of the summer. Privet hedges will become bushier and fill in better if they are pruned correctly and frequently
  • Privet hedges can be grown in partial shade to full sun.
  • Grow these shrubs in a soil that is kept evenly moist. They tolerate a wide soil pH range.

Uses for Privet Shrubs in Landscape Design, Warnings

The privet shrubs cold-hardy enough to be grown in the North are used almost exclusively to form hedges or topiaries. Many kinds are not especially beautiful plants when considered in isolation, but they do excel in the role of hedges. They grow more quickly and can be shaped more easily than can boxwood shrubs, for instance. Privet hedges tolerate heavy pruning. They do not seem to be troubled by the pollution that plagues many other plants in urban settings, plus they are salt-tolerant plants. These last two points are important considerations if you are seeking plants for a hedge that will run along a street. In fact, privet's popularity, traditionally, can be attributed, in part, to its carefree attitude about what kind of soil you grow it in.

Despite the strong arguments just made in favor of privet hedges, the plants do not come without drawbacks:

  1. They are poisonous plants.
  2. Not being evergreen in the North, privet hedges will be attractive for only a portion of the year there; for the same reason, they cannot furnish privacy year-round.
  3. Privet shrubs, which are indigenous to the Old World, are invasive plants in North America; many choose not to grow them for this reason, alone.

People who landscape in cold regions such as New England (USA) will prefer shrubs that are truly evergreen for hedges, such as Canadian hemlock and arborvitae