About Hedges, Topiaries, and Plants for Small Spaces

What do hedges, and plants for small spaces, have in common? A hedge is a group of plants that are expected to stay within a restricted, well-defined space. Each plant has neighbors immediately on either side of it, and generally has a walkway in front of it and a grassy area or garden behind it. If the plant attempts to exceed its designated area, it is pruned. That's why I think of hedges as plants for small spaces.

As I pass by a particularly awkward hedge, I find myself wondering how it happened. Somehow, I can't imagine that plant-owners walk into the nursery, spy a lovely, graceful, flowing plant full of healthy leaves and abundant blossoms, and say to themselves, "Oh! Let's buy this beautiful creature. We can have the day-laborers come and shave into into a lopsided sphere just before it starts to bloom, so that lots of bare branches are showing through the chopped leaves!"

Despite the fact that this is often the result, that can't be the plant-owner's intention. What must happen is that plant-owners see how beautiful the plant is in its natural state, but they don't understand what the plant needs in order to look like that for years to come. As soon as the plant gets "too big" they call a large landscaping corporation, which sends out a truck full of semi-skilled laborers. These laborers then take large, cumbersome blades and lay about them for all they're worth. When the plant-owners return home, they see the devastation that passes, on many La Jolla properties, for landscaping, and must think to themselves, "Well, the plants were nicer when they were new, but I guess the landscapers know what they're doing."

But they don't know. I've done my time on those crews, and the fact is, very few of the workers have any idea what they are doing. Naturally, I haven't worked with every crew. But I see their work, and it is not the work of landscapers. When you see landscape laborers on a property, you are notnecessarily seeing people who love plants and maintain graceful gardens of their own. That's why you so often see bushes that are almost square, almost round, and don't bloom the way their owners surely thought they would.

Maintenance-Intensive Hedges

Another commonality between hedge plants and plants for small spaces is that, if you choose a plant that is not the right size or shape for the spot, the result is endless maintenance to keep it in check.

It's a fact that some hedges require frequent pruning to keep them in bounds. But how do maintenance-intensive hedges come to be? I've suspected for a long time that landscape corporations push certain kinds of plants because they require constant maintenance. In Indiana, for example, English yews (taxus baccata)are the most popular hedge plant; coincidentally, despite Indiana's short growing season, they require endless maintenance. In La Jolla, where the growing season is itself endless, it makes sense for landscape corporations to sell you 50 carissas for a hedge, because they'll have to be back on your property once a month to trim its dangerous thorns away from the sidewalk. It's a great investment for them. It's a terrible investment for you, and not just because of the financial burden, as you will see below.

The Solution

That's my guess at how the problem occurs. Here's how to solve the problem.

First, you need an impartial advisor to help you choose suitable plants. I'm here to provide that advice; I have no plants to sell. If you want to have to trim your hedge once a month, then you can choose any random plant, or have it randomly chosen for you. But if you'd like to see your plants looking beautiful more often than you see shear-wielding laborers, then some research is in order. The following information should get you started.

In respect of size, plants are just like animals. All plants have size limitations. They will grow to a certain size, given basic requirements, and then will not get any larger. You can save yourself a lot of work by finding out before you buy what the maximum size of the plant is, and using it to your advantage. If you've got a small spot, put a naturally small shrub in it. If you need to fill a large area, get something naturally big. You can easily look up the projected dimensions of any plant. Putting a large plant in a small space means endless labor.

Many of your favorite plants come in both upright and sprawling varieties--some even grow as trees. Upright forms are appropriate for hedges, cooperatively growing in the desired wall-shape and requiring very little maintenance to keep them that way. Sprawling varieties are best used as single specimens. Give them their own display area, large enough to accommodate growth to full-size, trimming them gently just to keep them neat. The free-form, thorny carissa makes an ideal single specimen in a location where people and animals can give them a wide berth, but where their fragrance can be enjoyed.

The Carissa Hedge--Big Mistake

Speaking of the carissa: A particularly good illustration of bad hedge choices in La Jolla is the carissa. Carissas have gorgeous, clean white star-shaped flowers and impossibily beautiful deep green foliage. Their strong perfume is heavenly. But they also grow in a sprawling manner--and have hard, two-inch thorns. They make TERRIBLE hedges, not only because they are maintenance-intensive, but because they are dangerous. Imagine a small child falling off her bike as she coasts past your thorny barrier. Carissa responds poorly to shearing, as well. It is quite common in La Jolla to see large holes and bare branches in carissa hedges that have been sheared to within an inch of their lives. Although carissa is evergreen and can bloom all year, most carissa hedges only manage to eek out one or two blossoms even during their main blooming season. This is probably not the way the people who originally bought them thought things would be.

Unless you need a veritable FENCE strong and painful enough to keep cattle off your property, or unless your idea of a "hedge" is about 10 feet wide and irregularly shaped, don't use carissa as a hedge. The fragrance is wasted out on the street anyway. And the more aggressively the bush is pruned to keep it within municipal guidelines, the less abundantly it will bloom. Instead, selfishly locate one or two precious specimens near your front porch, so that the scent can waft into your windows. That way, you can help ensure that your neighbor's grandmother won't accidentally impale herself on her way to the grocery store.

The hibiscus also makes a preposterous hedge, but for different reasons. Hibiscuses reach enormous sizes in the La Jollan climate. Although they grow neatly in vaguely rounded shapes, if the space is not large enough, they simply look unweildy. Hibiscuses arrange their leaves rather sparsely along their branches, making them a naturally-bad screen Use hibiscus as a loose, distant background, such as at the bottom of your property but set well-in from the street. NEVER attempt to make a hibiscus flat on one side; the result will be a hideous display of bare sticks on the freshly-sheared bush, and a monstrosity of cramped, unblooming growth as the weeks go by. The condition will be compounded when the laborers come back and shear again, revealing how madly the bare sticks have multiplied since their last visit. If you dearly love the hibiscus, as I do, choose a highly visible spot in your garden and plant your favorite color there, leaving lots of room for it to expand. A large property could, of course, accommodate many such specimens. If pruning is necessary at all, make sure cuts are made one branch at a time, during the non-blooming season. Never simply cut in the middle of the branch, and make no more than 2 cuts on any given branch.

Shearable Plants for Hedges and True Topiaries

Boxwoods are the ultimate shearable plants. Although they make very attractive shrubs in their natural shape, they are one of the few plants that seem to tolerate being shaped. The best part is that they grow very slowly; that means that once you shape the bush, you won't need to do it again for many months. The small size of their leaves means that when the shears cut directly through the leaves (something that doesn't happen when bushes are hand-pruned), the discrepancy between whole leaves and cut leaves is not obvious, and thus there is not an extended period of time during which the plant simply looks artlessly abused. They are also very soft and can maintain a graceful flow even when sheared, unlike the extremely stiff and thorny carissa. If you like perfectly round or perfectly square bushes, try boxwoods instead of more vigorous growers.

However, be artistic about the shearing. One of the worst abominations in the garden is a bush that _approximates_, but never quite _attains_, the True Topiary Shape. True Topiary Shapes are perfect spheres, perfect squares, perfect pyramids, and perfectly realistic animal shapes. 'Perfect' is the operative word here. If it is "more or less" a lop-sided ball, it is not a topiary; it is a mistake, and it looks it. Your good intentions will not be noticed; only the resulting shape will be seen. For an example of such a monstrosity, take a look at the privet (ligustrum) that adorns my aesthetically-impaired apartment complex.

It is unwise to attempt to create True Topiary Shapes yourself, unless you have a bit of the natural sculptor in you. For the same reason that you don't cut your own hair, don't try to maintain a topiary bush yourself. Otherwise, you risk making what could be a perfectly lushious garden look as though it is carelessly, unprofessionally hacked-at and experimented-upon. Have a professional do it. (Note: a _professional_ doesn't mean a day-laborer hired by a landscaping corporation. Make sure that topiaries are on the company's list of specialties. Sorry. A Bit of Earth does not make or maintain topiaries.)

Naturally Round Bushes

Almost everything grows somewhere in the universe. At least, on Earth, almost every shape is available in the plant kingdom. If you want round bushes and trees on your property, buy round bushes and round trees . Certain varieties (caution: not all varieties) of certain species grow in perfectly round shapes, given space and light. Here are some good choices:

Naturally Round or Rounded Shrubs and Trees

If round is the shape of your heart's desire, do not install any of the following free-form plants that one sees being abused so often in La Jolla. These plants are veritable money-and-labor black holes for those who love the sheared look.

Bushes and Trees that Staunchly Resist Rounding (and Squaring)

Remember: The shape of the mature plant is an important factor in selection; it is especially important for the plant that must fit a small space, whether the space is between the lawn and the sidewalk, between its hedge-mates, or just the mental space you have given it in your esthetic perspective. Choose wisely--you'll prune yearly rather than bi-weekly. And your plant will be much happier and healthier.