It’s autumn in Alberta, and while we’re not treated to the spectacular colour display of maples as they are in eastern parts of the country, the cold weather has prompted the trees and shrubs in our province to put on quite a show this year. The mountain ashes are spectacular, heavily laden with red berries, and a euonymous I spotted last week in a neighbour’s yard was a screaming, blazing orange. The aspens are brilliant yellow, particularly vivid against fields that are just now being harvested, and the leaves of the chokecherries are a deep shade of burgundy-black, their fruit consumed in huge quantities by chubby robins preparing to migrate. But it’s the cotoneaster hedge that borders our residence, resplendent now in a vibrant shade of scarlet that I have never before seen it possess, that has me thinking. Why is it that we’re so vanilla when it comes to our choice of hedging material? Don’t get me wrong, cotoneasters are amazing, especially when they colour like ours has in the fall – they’re low maintenance, easy to trim, mostly resistant to disease and pests, provide a haven for small birds, plus they’re cheap and readily available EVERYWHERE. Therein lies the problem, I think. Because they’re basic and inexpensive, everyone has them, and while I admit a beautifully-trimmed formal cotoneaster hedge is hard to beat as far as aesthetics go, is it always necessary to conform? Why not go a little out on a limb…?
What about selecting rugosa roses for hedging, in particular the Hansa variety? In England, rose hedges are common, and while they’re fortunate enough over there to utilize a wide range of varieties, we’re more limited here in frosty Canada. Rugosas are hardy and amazing: fragrant purple-red Hansa roses bloom from mid- to late summer (even into autumn if the weather holds), and they possess vivid green foliage and profuse, fat hips once the flowers are spent. Sure, they’re more high-maintenance than cotoneasters – you will need to deadhead the flowers, for example, which would be a chore if your hedge is several feet long. And they’re certainly not formal – roses generally have a tendency to sprawl and you may even need a system of trellises or a post and wire setup to keep them from falling forward. But with planning and diligent care, they would be an absolute showstopper when in full bloom.
Or, consider mockorange – there are two varieties that can be successfully grown in our Zone 3 gardens, the Lewis (developed in Beaverlodge, in northern Alberta), and the Waterton (a hybridized version of a wild plant found in the southernmost tip of the province). Other cultivars, such as ‘Galahad’ and ‘Miniature Snowflake’ are a bit more tender and I wouldn’t want to risk the possibility of losing them in our Chinook-plagued winters. Mockorange have a neat and tidy form, and can be easily pruned (but do it immediately after the plants bloom, as next year’s flowers emerge on old wood). In truth, they’re not too fancy when not in bloom, but their flowers – which appear in early to mid-summer – are worth every penny spent. Profuse, pure white, and scented like citrus – need I say more? They’re truly exceptional. (But again, as with the roses, the limitations of your wallet will always prevail. Sigh).
Perhaps, instead, you want to apply a pruning technique to distinguish your hedge from the everyday-ordinary: what about a pleached or a plashed hedge? (I have never seen this done here in Alberta, so if anyone has links to photos or a story, please do share!). I wouldn’t even begin to suggest an appropriate cold-hardy species of plant to attempt these techniques with – I am assuming it would be something on the large scale, trees instead of multi-stemmed shrubs. Willows, perhaps? – they’re very pliable, which may be a useful trait. A pleached hedge is basically a raised braided hedge: trees are planted with appropriate spacing, allowed to grow to the desired height, and all material below five feet or so is trimmed away, leaving the trunks completely bare. A wire and post system is installed, so that the upper branches of the trees have support when they are subsequently braided so that they are forced to grow horizontally, instead of vertically. Thus trained, the raised hedge fills in as it leafs out, and can be pruned regularly throughout the growing season. As more branches emerge, they are also braided into the screen.
A plashed hedge requires even more work – drastic surgery, actually. Plashed hedges are “layed” hedges, which means that the actual trunks of the trees chosen to be plashed are partially cut and the tree branches are laid over horizontally, in one direction. They are then fastened in place by braiding around an established post system, so that subsequent growth will also lay flat (it may require further laying every spring). Both pleaching and plashing obviously result in a severely formal look, perhaps more suited to the grounds of a public garden than to a private urban residence. And, with the trunks of the trees fully exposed, the possibility of achieving privacy from your neighbours or keeping the stray cats and dogs out of your yard is non-existent. I’ll stick with the roses, thank you!
(Check out Hedges: Creating Screens and Edges by Averil Bedrich (2001)).