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Consider planting a new hedge or screen

Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. Last year I wrote to you about trimming my butterfly bushes. You responded to cut them 3 feet from the ground in February. They came back with a vengeance. Beautiful pink and purple blossoms. My neighbors have asked me if there is a way to “root a limb” so they can start growing their own.

    A. You could probably root a plant on semi-hardwood cuttings, 5 to 6 inches long, taken in early summer and set in a pot of light soil. The cut ends should be dipped in a rooting hormone powder such as Root Tone first. However, I suggest your neighbors buy a plant in a garden center and set it out. They will get the immediate reward of a blooming plant this summer and their patience won’t be tested as it would be with a small cutting.

Many landscapes are at their thinnest this time of year. Leaves are off the trees and shrubs, and you can see through where you used to see green. This may raise the desire to plant a clipped evergreen hedge or informal screen along your boundary.

This defines your property line in a friendly way. It also adds a ribbon of green that looks good all year, but is most noticeable and cheerful in winter.

Selecting plants for this project starts with an understanding of their requirements for sun, shade or something in between. Plus you must think about how short or tall, how wide or narrow you wish the hedge or screen to grow.

Basically a hedge is kept short and clipped on the sides and top to give a rather stiff, vertical effect. The effect is formal and looks good when done right. It is usually kept short enough for a person to trim it, late each winter, while standing on the ground.

Most often, a single kind of plant, such as Japanese holly, English laurel or Japanese boxwood, is chosen. This may be the best choice when space is limited and you want to avoid any intrusion into sidewalks or driveways.

A screen is a looser, more informal look, with shrubs allowed to reach their normal mature height. It is a bigger look, but one to work on over time and cherish. The effect on the sides is soft, sometimes even feathery. And this type of screen lends itself to a mix of plants that can even include deciduous shrubs such as forsythia, barberry, quince or hydrangea. While a long stretch of deciduous shrubs may look boring in winter, a mix of evergreen and deciduous looks fine, especially if the evergreens present the background.

Here is where your particular taste for such things as color (blue hydrangeas for summer or golden yellow kerria for spring), late-winter flowers (witch hazel or wintersweet) or fragrance (winter daphne) can be explored and then enjoyed for years. People tend to plant clipped hedges single file in rows of varying lengths. It must seem like the natural thing to do, and it does create smooth sides to the hedge.

But an informal screen almost always looks better when planted in a zigzag pattern with every other plant slightly forward of its neighbor. This gives rhythm to the look and allows for closer, easier spacing because the plants have more breathing room (meaning room to grow) on their sides. Since the intended effect is loose and free, this looks better. It will also reduce the chances that you will prune the plant and probably reduce the amount of flowers.

You can do this work on days when it is nice to be outdoors, but try to get it done by mid-spring. This will allow roots of the new plants to get growing, Careful attention must be paid to watering in dry weather through the summer the first year and probably the second.

Nancy Brachey:

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