Hedges are making a comeback in home landscapes

Gardening columnist Don Kinzler writes about shrubs commonly used for hedges in the Upper Midwest. He also offers tips for creating a hedge.

Alpine currant forms a hedge that is easily trimmed to a height of to-to four feet.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Did you hear about the guy who yelled loudly at two pigeons who were bothering his fence, and they both died of fright? I didn’t know you could kill two birds with one’s tone.

Have you heard the old saying “Good fences make good neighbors?” Fences give a sense of boundary, they provide privacy, they secure the yard for children’s play, and fences can contain pets.

Trees, shrubs and vines planted strategically can provide many of the same advantages as fences, and they don’t require frequent staining. In fact, plants are sometimes referred to as living fences.

Plants that are grown in a fence-like row are termed a hedge. The concept goes back centuries, when hedges were used to divide and mark fields and property lines.

Trimmed hedges were in vogue from the late 1800s through the 1950s. My grandparent’s rural North Dakota homestead had a caragana hedge, separating the house yard from the farmyard. Neatly manicured hedges were common during the “Leave it to Beaver” years, and I’m sure Ward Cleaver owned at least one hedge shears, maybe two.


Hedges are making a comeback, as we rediscover their advantages. They create privacy, define one’s space, and provide screening and wind protection if high enough.

Globe caragana makes a neat hedge, staying about three feet with no trimming needed.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Nearly any tree or shrub type can be used to create a hedge. The University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has a fascinating hedge collection, with 57 species and 44 cultivars of shrubs or trees trimmed to form hedges. Even spruce trees can be formed and trimmed hedge-like with their tops cut off and sides sheared to become dense.

Hedges can be formal, with sides and tops neatly sheared, or informal with branches selectively pruned as needed to maintain a natural shape. Both can be beautiful. For a formally trimmed, dense hedge, select shrub types with small leaves, because they shear better than large-leaved types.

Following are shrubs commonly used for hedges or screening in Upper Midwest landscapes.

  • Alpine currant. Its small leaves and dense branching make it a popular choice for a tightly trimmed hedge. They can easily be sheared to a height of 2 to 4 feet. If allowed to grow without trimming, they become an informal, rounded hedge reaching 4 to 5 feet.
  • Dwarf Korean lilac. Small leaves are well-adapted to shearing, or it can make an informally rounded hedge. If left unpruned, they can reach a height and width of at least 8 feet, or maintained lower by trimming.
  • Old-fashioned lilac. If a tall, wide privacy hedge is wanted, lilacs are ideal.
  • Globe caragana. Reaching a maximum of 3 to 4 feet high and 2 feet wide, these shrubs form upright ovals of fresh green color, creating a low-maintenance hedge that needs little or no trimming.
  • Redtwig dogwood. Bright red twigs are dramatic in winter. They’re fast growing and can reach a height and width of 8 feet if left untrimmed.
  • Barberry. Their thorns make a hedge that’s nearly impenetrable in various foliage colors.
  • Cotoneaster. Once the favorite trimmed hedge, its glossy green leaves and brilliant fall color are beautiful. Fireblight disease reduced its popularity.
  • Diervilla bush honeysuckle. Colorful foliage on an informal shrub reaching about 3 feet.
  • Ninebark. There are many cultivars, varying in color, and all make informal hedges.
  • Potentilla. For a low-growing informal hedge, these yellow-flowered beauties love heat and sun.
  • Spirea. There are many types, varying in height and flower color. Best used in informal, rounded hedges.
  • Upright or columnar juniper. For an evergreen hedge or screen, junipers are preferred over arborvitae, which are regularly feasted upon by rabbits and deer.
  • Viburnum. Several types are sold by garden centers maturing at various heights. Some become quite tall.

Tips for creating a hedge:

  • Decide if you want a formally trimmed hedge, or an informal type, and choose shrubs that best fit that form.
  • How far apart to space plants is determined by how wide the shrubs can become. For example, globe caragana can be spaced 12 to 18 inches apart to form a solid row. Redtwig dogwood, maturing at 6 to 8 feet wide, will quickly become a solid row if spaced 3 feet apart.
  • If you opt for a trimmed hedge, always trim so the base is wider than the top, resulting in sloping sides that catch sunlight and retain healthy foliage all the way to the ground. If trimmed perfectly vertical, the top begins shading the base and the lower branches quickly become leggy and bare of foliage.
  • Leafy, deciduous hedges can be rejuvenated periodically by cutting to about four inches above ground level in early spring. A chain saw works well.
  • A wooden or chain-link fence can be turned into a living wall or privacy screen by planting vines.
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Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at
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