A hedge serves a variety of functions in the home landscape. It can set property line boundaries in a manner that's friendlier than a fence or wall. A hedge can screen off an unpleasant view. It can block unwanted foot traffic across your yard or can even enhance security if you use shrubs that are dense and thorny.
It is essential to choose shrubs that serve your intended purpose and are suitable for the growing conditions in your region. Choosing the right hedge shrubs begins with understanding the hardiness range of each species.
Including Alaska and Hawaii, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) categorizes the various geographic regions of the country into 13 different plant hardiness zones. Zones 1 to 3 are limited to rather small areas of Alaska and portions of the extreme northern continental U.S., and zones 10 to 13 are reserved for even smaller tropical regions of Hawaii and southern Florida, Louisiana, Texas and California. The vast majority of the U.S. population lives in zones 4 to 9, and fortunately, a number of hedge shrubs are suitable for use throughout that range.
Qualities of Good Hedge Shrubs
Every homeowner will prioritize different attributes when choosing shrubs for a hedge. For some, spectacular flowers will be a priority, while others will want dense privacy boundaries. Regionality also plays a role. Some of the best hedge shrubs in the dry conditions of Tucson, Arizona may be quite different from the best species for the humid, salty air of Bangor, Maine. Aside from this, though, good hedge shrubs usually share features and growth habits that make them suitable for this purpose.
- Dense growth. Ideally, a hedge should be dense from top to bottom to serve as a privacy screen. Thus, the best hedge shrubs are often multistemmed plants rather than bushes that have a single main trunk or stem.
- Resistance to pests and diseases. It can be quite difficult to seamlessly replace a single dying shrub in an established hedge row, so try to select a variety that has a reputation for being easy maintenance in your region.
- Tolerance to pruning. Not all shrubs accept the hard, regular pruning that's required to shape them into a hedge shape. Except for hedges grown deliberately as a loose visual screen, most hedge shrubs will need to tolerate regular trimming. The best choices not only tolerate pruning but respond with extra vigorous growth.
- Fast but limited growth. An ideal hedge shrub grows quite quickly when young but has a limited mature size. You want the shrubs to quickly assume hedge size but not grow into huge shade trees.
- Year-round appeal. The ideal hedge shrub will have something to offer in every season of the year. While the spectacular spring display of azaleas might be worth it to you, such shrubs become rather sparse in the fall and winter. Year-round attractiveness is why many evergreen shrubs are popular for hedges, but there are some deciduous shrubs that offer year-round appeal with spring flowers, summer foliage, fall color and even winter berries.
Forsythia for a Flowering Hedge
Forsythia (Forsythia x) is a deciduous shrub that provides bright-yellow flowers in the early spring and has a very dense, thorny growth habit that makes it an ideal hedge shrub for providing privacy and security against casual intrusion. Various cultivars are available that are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9, some of which remain only 1 to 2 feet tall, while others grow as tall as 10 feet.
The Forsythia x intermedia cultivars are best where a full screening hedge is required. This plant has attractive fall color but does not offer much in the way of winter interest, although it has a dense growth habit that will continue to define property lines even when the snow flies.
Boxwood Is Easy to Shape
Boxwood shrubs (Buxus spp.) are broadleaf evergreens that are especially good for hedges because they keep their color year-round within their hardiness zone. The small leaves and dense stem habit make them ideal privacy hedges. There are many different species of boxwood, and you can find one appropriate anywhere in zones 4 to 9. 'Green Gem,' for example, works well in zones 4 to 9 and grows 3 to 4 feet high, making it ideal for a formal property boundary. It grows well in both full sun and partial shade and is quite tolerant of pruning.
Although it is not suitable for the coldest climates, Buxus sempervirons (common boxwood) is an excellent choice for zones 5 to 9. It is so amenable to pruning that it is often used for topiaries.
Arborvitae, an Evergreen Standard
Arborvitae shrubs (Thuja spp.) are very popular hedge shrubs in every region except the deep South. The dense growth, evergreen foliage and willingness to accept pruning make them unparalleled as hedge and screening shrubs.
American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) is a large plant, normally growing 30 or 40 feet, but there are a number of dwarf cultivars that can be used for screen hedges, and even the taller varieties accept hard pruning. The hardiness range of arborvitae shrubs covers most of the continental U.S. — zones 2 to 8. The popular Thuja 'American Pillar' is suitable for zones 3 to 8 and grows very quickly with an attractive columnar habit. There are many other arborvitae cultivars that make excellent tall hedges.
For homeowners who like a hedge that produces a spring display of flowers, the Viburnum group of deciduous shrubs is a good choice. The Viburnum genus includes species suitable for nearly every region — zones 2 to 9.
A particularly good variety is arrowwood viburnum, a multistemmed, rounded shrub that produces creamy-white flowers in late spring. The leaves are a very attractive shiny dark-green, turning to red and reddish-purple in the fall. The small blue-black berries that follow the spring flowers ripen by late fall and are a big draw for songbirds. This plant is very attractive to butterflies and other pollinators. It grows 6 to 15 feet tall, making it ideal for screening hedges. It thrives with regular pruning and adapts well to both full sun and partial shade.
Other good varieties include Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii), which has fragrant flowers and red or black berries, and 'Nanum,' a short variety that remains under 3 feet tall.
Versatile Yew for Hedges
Yews include a large number of species in the Taxus genus, and several of them make good hedge or screening plants. Yews are needled evergreens with flattened, dark-green needles that are relatively soft to the touch. Some yews grow to be massive trees, while others are low-growing plants more suitable as foundation plantings. Some that are suitable for hedges and screens include the Taxus x media hybrids, especially:
- 'Hatfieldii,' a pyramid-shaped plant that grows to about 8 feet tall.
- 'Brownii,' a dense, rounded shrub that will willingly accept pruning.
- 'Hicksii,' an excellent choice for a traditional tall hedge shrub, growing 10 to 12 feet with a 3- to 4-foot spread.
Be aware that yews contain a toxin that is quite poisonous. Be especially careful about planting the varieties that produce berries in a landscape where children might be tempted to eat them.
Spirea Makes a Good Boundary
While Japanese spireas can be dangerously invasive, other species make excellent hedge shrubs. One example is bridal wreath spirea (Spiraea vanhouttei), an arching shrub that produces a cascade of white flowers in midspring. This plant has a thorny, dense growth pattern that makes for a good privacy/boundary plant. Bridal wreath spirea grows to about 6 feet tall with a similar spread and is suitable for USDA zones 3 to 8.
Spireas are best for informal hedges or screens, as they do not tolerate extensive pruning for shape. You can choose varieties with white, pink, purple or red flowers as well as varieties with impressive fall foliage. Any of the low spireas with a mounded growth habit can make good flowering hedges. Some good choices include birchleaf spirea (Spirea betulifolia), a 2- to 3-foot shrub hardy in zones 5 to 8, and Nippon spirea (Spirea nippica), a 4- to 5-foot shrub with cascading branches and thick clusters of white flowers, suitable for USDA zones 3 to 8.
Aromatic Juniper for Hedges
Juniperus is a broad genus of coniferous evergreens in the Cypress family. Junipers are distinguished by scale-like foliage and a spicy aroma, and many species produce blue or blackish berry-like cones that enhance winter appeal and attract birds. The many species of juniper range from low, spreading ground covers to stately towering trees. Foliage color can range from very dark green to blue-green or gray-green depending on the species and cultivar. Several medium-sized spreading varieties are especially good for hedges, including:
- 'Nick's Compact' (Juniperus chinensis 'Nick's Compact'), which grows about 2 1/2 feet high with a spread of about 6 feet in USDA zones 5 to 9.
- 'Sea Green' (Juniperus chinensis 'Sea Green'), a 4- to 6-foot-tall shrub that grows 6 to 8 feet wide with arching branches. It is suitable in zones 3 to 9.
- 'Grey Owl' (Juniperus virginiana 'Grey Owl'), a greyish-green shrub that grows to about 5 feet tall with an 8-foot spread. It is suitable in zones 2 to 9.
- 'Blue Arrow' (Juniperus scopulorum 'Blue Arrow') is narrow, columnar shrub that grows to 12 feet, making it a good screening shrub. Suitable in zones 3 to 9, this is a very long-living shrub that has excellent tolerance for urban conditions.
Junipers are best left to grow as an informal screening hedge since they do not tolerate hard pruning for shape.
Privet, a Classic Hedge Choice
Like boxwood, privet (Libustrum spp.) shrubs are classic choices for deciduous hedge shrubs thanks to their thick growth habit and willing acceptance of hard pruning for shape. This is another shrub that is a good choice where you want a carefully shaped, formal-looking hedge, though it also works well as an informal screening hedge.
Privets are very aggressive shrubs and should never be planted in situations where they can easily escape into the wild. For example, the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States shows that border privet, one of the most common hedge varieties, is regarded as a noxious weed over large stretches of the Midwest and upper East Coast.
Other privet species, such as L. ovalavoleum, are somewhat less problematic, so make your choice based on the recommendations of the Invasive Plant Atlas or a local gardening expert. Most species of privet grow 8 to 12 feet tall but can be kept pruned to almost any height you choose. Most species are suitable for growing in zones 3 to 7.
'Miss Kim' Lilac as a Hedge
While some lilacs can spread overwhelmingly and grow so fast that pruning seems like a constant chore, the 'Miss Kim' variety (Syringa pubescens subsp. pagtula 'Miss Kim') has all of the beauty of the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) but is an easy-care dwarf form with a maximum size of about 8 feet.
This multistem deciduous shrub is also more willing to accept light pruning than common lilacs. Pruning should be done immediately after the shrub flowers in the spring. This shrub is suitable for growing in most regions of the U.S. in zones 3 to 8. It has good tolerance for urban conditions and is less susceptible to the powdery mildew that can plague common lilacs.
Spring-Blooming Weigela for Hedges
Weigela is a genus of about 12 species of spring-flowering, multistem deciduous shrubs that are quite willing to accept pruning. Most are suitable for growing in zones 4 to 8. Sizes range from 2 to 8 feet or more depending on species and cultivar. A variety of attractive foliage colors are available, from palest green to a deep purple-burgundy.
Spring flowers range from pink to purplish-red. Many weigela varieties put on an excellent leaf-color transition from spring to fall. Although this plant works best as a somewhat loose, informal hedge, it will accept a considerable amount of shaping, which should be done immediately after flowering has ended.
Good cultivars include 'Dark Horse' (Weigela 'Dark Horse'), 'Pink Princess' (W. florida 'Pink Princess'), 'Courtamon' (Weigela 'Courtamon' FELINE) and 'Nana Variegata' (Weigela 'Nana Variegata').
- Better Homes & Gardens: 22 Best Plants for Hedges
- Gardener's Path: The 5 Best Shrubs for Hedges High and Low
- The Old Farmer's Almanac: Best Shrubs for Making Privacy Hedges
- Great Garden Plants: Best Privacy Hedge Plants - Our Top 7
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Plant Finder
- Better Homes & Gardens: Best Flowering Shrubs for Hedges
- United States Department of Agriculture: Interactive Map
- Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States: Border Privet