Monday, March 4, 2024
Cottonwood flower (Hibiscus tiliaceus) (Image: Dan Austin)
International Plant Propagation Society

Rethinking the humble hedge

By Dan Austin

In Australia, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to the plants available for our gardens. Garden centres offer up a myriad of options for just about any purpose, but the popularity of a handful of favourites still leads to some species being overused and causing a sense of horticultural déjà vu when travelling around the country.

It’s a phenomenon that is particularly evident in our hedges. From the ever-present photinias (Photinia x fraseri cultivars), pittosporums (Pittosporum tenuifolium cultivars) and Leighton Greens (Cupressocyparis leylandii) to the ‘go to’ mix of diosma (Coleonema pulchellum), laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) and lilly pilly (Syzigium species) favoured by fast food chains, some plants seem almost inescapable. It’s for good reason. These species are fast-growing, tough and adaptable to a range of conditions, so they are great choices for many Australian gardens, but they are by no means the only choices available.

Glossy foliage of Ficus hillii ‘Flash’ (Image: Dan Austin)
Glossy foliage of Ficus hillii ‘Flash’ (Image: Dan Austin)

If you are thinking of putting in a hedge, it is worth taking a few minutes to ask yourself why? Is it primarily to perform a function such as screening or is it part of a larger design idea? Are you looking to create formality in a space? What level of maintenance are you able to contribute? These types of questions will allow you to explore a wider plant palette that will result in you being able to find the perfect plants for your purpose.

Hedges are a great way to achieve privacy or to partition off areas within a space, but the savvy gardener can achieve the same function using all sorts of plants not generally thought of as hedging species. Sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica) is a perfect example and a great option to screen fencing along the edges of driveways in small spaces. Unlike traditional hedging plants that would need to be pruned back to avoid damaging vehicles, sacred bamboo produces upright canes and does not grow outward, meaning when it reaches a concrete drive it stops in a straight vertical line.

A display of society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) demonstrating the design element of line (Image: Dan Austin)
A display of society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) demonstrating the design element of line (Image: Dan Austin)

If you are not set on the need to create a formal effect, informal hedges require less maintenance. A huge variety of plants can be used to achieve informal screening and at the same time introduce varying colours and textures into the garden. Woolly bushes (Adenanthos sericeus) are a good option providing a fast-growing, dense screen of feathery foliage, able to comfortably grow to a height to act as a fence or to screen one off. For contrast in colour, purple cottonwoods (Hibiscus tilliaceus) are another option that can be used for both informal and formal hedging. These hardy plants don’t like cold winters but, in warmer areas, offer an unusually large-leaved hedging option, blooming with showy yellow flowers.

If it is a formal neatly-clipped hedge you are after there are loads of modern cultivars to explore. From the lime green and glossy-leaved flash hedge (Ficus hillii ‘Flash’) to the fragrant Daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’, there are options to suit any scenario. While new and improved plant varieties are hitting the market each year, some of the best options have been around forever. What’s old is new again and even classic Mediterranean hedging plants like rosemary and lavender, while having all but disappeared as hedges, are tried, tested and useful as well.

From a design perspective, hedging can be used to achieve the element of ‘line’ within a space. Lines can guide the eye or an individual to a specific focal point within the garden and are also useful for the separation of space. If you are considering a hedge for this purpose, there are many plants that can achieve the desired effect that don’t require the maintenance of a formal hedge. Large clump forming perennials including flaxes (Phormium cultivars), mat rushes (Lomandra cultivars), society garlic(Tulbaghia violacea) and even aggies (Agapanthus species) can be used. Some of these plants can reach the size of small shrubs and while not often thought of as hedges, repeat plantings are often useful in larger gardens to create formal lines without the need for pruning. The possibilities to create formal lines in the absence of hedges are almost endless.

There are great nurseries and garden centres across Australia, with friendly staff just waiting to help you navigate the wide world of plants available for gardens. On the shelves, you’ll find those popular hedges but take some time to look around and you just might find something a whole lot better.

Dan Austin

IPPS Member, Author

Lecturer, TAFE South Australia

M: 049 122 8591

E: daniel.austin@outlook.com

FB: BeyondGreenAustralia

W: ipps.org

Main photo: Cottonwood flower (Hibiscus tiliaceus) (Image: Dan Austin)

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