Plan(t) for Privacy -Winter 2013

by: Hilary Newell

PRIVACY is a commodity here on our wide-open island. FENCES, hedges and STONE WALLS demarcate BOUNDARIES, real and imagined. Unmowed road edges can grow into hedgerows while hundreds of man-hours are spent manicuring privet HEDGES that dare passersby to peek in to see what they can see.

Stone walls may not provide privacy, but create a foundation of functional beauty. They afford protection for gardens and plantings and lend an air of permanence so helpful in
gardens. Nantucket has some very creative and talented designers and masons. Whether the ground is level or uneven, stonework can be designed to beautify the area.

Solid, sturdy, durable, decorative, timeless and iconic, rock walls have a long history in New England. Many years ago I stumbled, quite literally, on an old stone wall in the woods in Raynham, Mass. and I marveled that it was still standing. I imagined the old farmhouse, long gone, where the farmers used horse-drawn plows to till the earth. I suspect that the rock wall was made from glacial erratics that were plowed up and stacked, growing in height each year. Noting the size of some of these rocks, they had to do some serious manhandling to move them around. Most of those old dry walls never reached more than shoulder height because of this. Sadly, many of these old walls have been pillaged and partially destroyed by people taking the rocks for re-building walls on their own properties.

The rocks in my mother’s garden caused no end of frustration for her. Each spring, dad would rototill the garden with much difficulty, occasionally bending a blade on some small boulder. Frost would heave buried rocks up every spring and mom threw them to the edge of the cultivated area. While we never got around to building a real wall with them, they continued to pile up, creating a boundary for tomatoes, beans and greens. That rocky soil is also perfect for creating the proper drainage for growing grapes, and that’s exactly what my grandmother planted. Her small, four-acre vineyard always produced a high yield of the purple goodness called Concord grapes, even in years when other growers’ yields were down. I swear it’s because of the rocks that provided good drainage for the roots of those gnarly vines.

But those rocks can be just as useful above ground. I connected with Dave Champoux to talk about using stone in the landscape.

“If something needs to be retained, stone is simply the best,” he told me. Gardens on hillsides and areas near driveways and around bulkhead doors often require retaining walls.

Hardscape also plays an important role in the architecture of a landscape design. Stonework can be the foundation that helps tie the whole landscape plan together. Consulting with an experienced landscaper and installer can make a big difference in the way your property can be enjoyed every day. Costs will vary by type of project and by the kind of stone you may choose, but almost always, a hardscape project will enhance the value of your property. Stone will not wear out during your life or in the life of your home.

If you are interested in stonework, look around your home for natural contours, and try to envision short walls and patios in areas where you live outside. Changes in elevation provide the base for multiple levels of walls. The spaces between large, flat pieces of Goshen stone or New England fieldstone make a great home for heaths and heathers and other small drought-tolerant plants. Creeping thyme will fill in the spaces and create an interesting look, and the scent will waft up when you step on them. Belgian block will make an excellent edge for your perennial garden, helping to keep spreading plants from escaping.

Champoux shared some examples of stonework that looked to me quite complicated and difficult. Numerous levels of walls, steps and flat areas leading to a home looked very complicated to build. When asked how he learned to install this type of hardscape, he replied, “My crew picked it right up. Once you know what you’re doing there’s nothing to it.”

Maybe so, but none of it could be done without some strong backs and mortar. The examples of walls I looked at seemed to be completely free-form, but Champoux assured me that every wall has some kind of mortar in it, even if it looks like it doesn’t.

There are places in every garden where a stone wall cannot provide an alternative to a hedge. The Historic District Commission frowns upon free-standing stone walls in some locations, so another choice when real privacy is desired is to plant a hedge. Certain areas of the island are home to what seems like miles of privet hedges, but there are so many more choices that can provide solitude and space to retreat, shield you from a neighbor or create a visual boundary to complement your home without busting your budget.

What are the best plants for a screen or hedge? Ask yourself a few basic questions: Will your hedge be in full sun or part shade? How tall does it need to be? Do you like a formal or relaxed style? How soon do you want it to reach full height? Planting larger specimens closer together will create a finished hedge sooner, but will cost more than starting with small plants and giving them time to grow.

Butterflies and bees love the trumpet-shaped flowers that bloom all summer on Abelia grandiflora. The scented white flowers tinged with pink will provide color and beneficial insect action while giving you a hedge of up to about six feet. It can be pruned down to about three feet, and makes a beautiful edge for defining a garden area or pathway. Abelia is very easy to grow, deer don’t eat it and it isn’t susceptible to diseases.

Chaenomeles, also known as flowering quince, comes with extra armor to make it an effective barrier. Sharp spines are found all over the plant, making it difficult to sneak through and keeping hungry deer from devouring it. It grows six to 10 feet tall and blooms with white, pink or scarlet flowers in early spring. It is deciduous, so it cannot lend privacy during the winter. The flowers appear before the quince leafs out, making a very special show. It’s hardy to Zone 4 so Northerners can enjoy this, too.

Sometimes, the best time to plant a hedge is 20 years ago. You may be lucky enough to have an established threadleaf false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) known for its delicate-looking foliage. It is a slowgrowing evergreen that eventually grows to nearly 20 feet on the mainland, likely reaching 12-14 feet here. Also known as Sawara false cypress, there are multiple cultivars with slight variations in form and color. It’s pretty carefree and attractive year-round.

It’s always helpful to look toward what occurs naturally when thinking about hedges. Native viburnum endures and provides berries every year and there are some named varieties that will do the same. Blue Muffin arrowwood viburnum is a fantastic landscape plant that can be easily pruned into hedge form. Creamy white flowers appear in spring, small blue berries appear in summer and fall, and the foliage changes to reddish-purple in the fall. Birds are attracted to the fruit and that – in combination with its hardiness and colors – makes it a great choice for a hedge.

No matter how much room you have to work with, there’s probably a juniper that will work for you. From ground-hugging Bar Harbor to berry-producing Hetzi Columnar for hedges, junipers are a great choice. Junipers are tolerant of a wide variety of growing conditions, too, so that makes them a great choice for Nantucket. Drought-tolerance and relatively few insect or disease problems make them an attractive choice. Juniper Blue Point is a very hardy, fast-growing, upright juniper with a pyramidal, columnar growth habit. It can withstand drought and windy conditions better than most other upright junipers. The color is good all winter and loves our acidic, welldrained soil. If your home needs a windscreen, this is a great choice, and the needle-like foliage is great for privacy. Most junipers respond well to pruning, making them fill in quickly.

Hollies are iconic plants. Mostly evergreen and with red berries, they have plenty of winter interest. Birds are fans of the berries, so if you want to attract wildlife, holly is a good choice. Ilex meserveae Blue Princess is extremely useful as a hedge, but you need to plant a Blue Prince as a pollinator if you want to get those red berries. With its deep-green foliage (where did “blue” come from anyway?) this holly responds very well to pruning. A word of caution though: Deer are very fond of holly, so if there is deer pressure in your area, this is probably not a good choice.

Euonymus japonica Grandifolia is an ideal plant for a more formal hedge. It takes the worst weather and poor soil in stride and it has a nice tidy habit that can surround an area without competing. For full to part sun, Grandifolia is tightly branched and responds well to pruning. Usually green, you can get varieties that have creamy white variegation.
Pyracantha coccinea or Scarlet Firethorn is very hardy in our area. It is often seen on the south side of a building, trellised and climbing. But it can also be used in a hedge. It has very large thorns and works well to keep people and animals out of an area. It will lose its foliage in winter, but the orange-red berries it bears each fall provide quite a show. It adapts well to being trained into an informal hedge with white flowers in spring. It can grow 18 feet tall, but regular pruning will help keep it more compact.

One of the fastest-growing evergreens used here is Leyland cypress. It can make a giant hedge within a few years, but left untrimmed, it grows to over 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide in less than 15 years. That towering wall of green may not be what you want in a couple decades. Deer usually don’t eat it either, so it may be best left as a specimen plant rather than used as a hedge. They can also brown out in an unusually cold, windy winter.

The most beautiful hedge I’ve seen recently is composed entirely of hornbeam (Carpinus). The vibrant green leaves are borne all spring and summer, and in autumn the leaves turn yellow, finishing deep russet before they fall off in winter.

Controlling growth is a requirement when growing a hedge. Once your hedge gets established, it will likely benefit from some trimming. If you don’t feel confident about pruning, consult a professional. Do some research when you purchase your plants to determine what time of year is best for pruning your particular hedge.

Typically, hedges are composed of only one kind of plant. While this looks great for a formal yard, it can spell disaster for the integrity of the entire hedge if one plant succumbs to disease, or is infected by some species-specific insect. One idea for an informal hedge would be to use several different types of plants, like a mixed row of evergreens or combining flowering quince with junipers and hornbeam.

Borders, informal or formal, are an integral part of the landscape. Wind protection, privacy, separation and defined boundaries are all central to the final design. When you are installing hedges or stonework, selecting the right materials in the beginning is probably the most important part of the process.

Hilary Newell is the director of marketing at Bartlett's Ocean View Farm and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.

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