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Green Barriers for Function and Beauty

newly planted arborvitae

Newly planted arborvitae

Recently a friend asked if I had any suggestions for creating a sound barrier in front of his house. My first idea was arborvitae. These neat symmetrical conifers are popular because they are not only handsome, but because they are low maintenance plants. They are hardy, not fussy about soil, are fairly salt tolerant and once they are established they are drought tolerant. They also tolerate some shade but need at least four hours of sun.

Two easily available arborvitae cultivars are Emerald Green which will reach a height of about 15 feet with a three to four foot spread, growing at a rate of about a foot a year. Green Giant will reach a height of 30-40 feet with a 15-20 foot spread, and grows more rapidly.

The Leyland cedar, which has the scale-like foliage and other attributes similar to that of the arborvitae, will grow about two feet a year until it is 60 feet or more with a spread of about 20 feet. It needs full sun.

The question with any planting is how long it will take before the plants achieve your goal. One way to hurry the usefulness of a sound barrier created by these trees is to plant two rows, with the second row planted off center. Two rows planted this way will give you a solid barrier more quickly. An annual pruning will help control the height.

mature arborvitae

Mature arborvita

Evergreens make the best sound barrier, but people need other barriers if they are looking for greater privacy on small urban lots. I have seen houses here in Greenfield that have five or six foot privet hedges in front of their houses to give them privacy in their gardens.

The lots on our Greenfield street are quite narrow. Houses take up most of the width of the lot and driveways use more land next to the house. The north side of our house, where we park our car, is hardly more than an alley. Long ago our neighbor on that side planted a privet hedge which is now about seven or eight feet tall.

On the south side there is approximately 21 feet from our house to our neighbor’s driveway. Driveways are necessary and we all have them, but no one ever claimed they were things of beauty. Our answer was a deep border filled with blooming shrubs.

I began with hydrangeas which have become so popular. There are different families of hydrangea and each of them has different requirements and benefits. I was careful to choose paniculata hydrangeas which have the kind of loose, airy flower clusters that I like. I am not as fond of the familiar snowball hydrangeas. Paniculata hydrangeas are hardy and not very fussy. All three of the cultivars I chose should be pruned back slightly in the very early spring to encourage new growth, but they require little other care.

I chose three which promise to be tall and wide. Limelight has a long bloom season, producing large pale green flowers from mid-summer into the fall. Hydrangeas grow quickly and it should not take long before my Limelight reaches a height of at least five feet, and I’m hoping for seven or eight feet, with an equal spread.

Then I chose Angel’s Blush hydrangea because its label said it was one of the largest hydrangeas and would grow to 10 feet tall and just as wide. The large loose flower clusters turn a lovely shade of pink over the summer. It also tolerates some shade.

Since I can never resist shades of pink and red my third choice was Quick Fire. The large flowers will turn a deeper and deeper shade of pink/red over the summer. It will reach a similar height and width as Angel’s Blush.

I’ve planted lilacs and viburnams in this deep border as well, but hydrangeas will be the stars. Because these shrubs are still young, I have also used ground covers, perennials and a few annuals to cover the ground. I’d don’t want to look at bare soil any more than I do a driveway. As the shrubs fill out I will move those plants to a roomier spot. My photo of a section of this border/barrier looks a bit of a tangle, but that will change as the hydrangeas mature.

Hydrangea border

Hydrangea border

No matter how big and tall my hydrangeas get they will loose their blossoms and foliage when frigid winter storms in, but we will be keeping our heads down and rushing from car to house so we won’t be looking at the flower bed. Or my neighbor’s driveway.

We are also planning a privacy barrier with a third type of shrub at the back of our lot. The very back border is a bit of a tangle of weedy trees and Virginia creeper. I don’t object to this wildness because wild space is important to support pollinators and birds. However, it is not lovely.

Because this end of our lot is very wet we have created a kind of large raised bed that we call The Hugel. So far we have only planted groundcovers on The Hugel, but  in the spring we will plant beautiful broadleaf evergreens, rhododendrons.

The world of rhododendrons is a large one with small and tall cultivars, in a rainbow of colors like the pink Scintillation, the soft yellow Capistrano, snowy Boule de Neige, or rich Purple Passion. These low maintenance shrubs all bloom gloriously in the spring around Memorial Day in our area. Though their leaves curl in really cold weather, they will still provide an attractive barrier in front of our deciduous weediness. ###

Between the Rows   October 15, 2016

5 comments to Green Barriers for Function and Beauty

  • Helen Opie

    I love watching the leaves of rhododendrons curl and relax in response to the cold. I also want to curl up and just hang when it is extremely cold so I commiserate with them.

  • My arborvitae seemed to grow relatively quickly to form a wall of green. I wish I had planted them a bit farther apart, though. I followed a design provided by an amateur landscape designer and he didn’t leave enough space for them. They seem content, though. The only problems I have had with them are rabbits and bagworms.

  • Pat

    Bitten – I think spacing of plants is one of the hardest things we have to do. There is even a book, Gardening in Time, that tries to help up remember/consider the size of a plant as it matures. Easy enough to move perennials. Not so easy to move shrubs, and impossible to move a tree.

  • Pat

    Helen – that curling was what I most disliked about rhododendrons in my early life. I’m more accepting now – and happy to curl up inside myself and look at the cold outside.

  • Arborvitaes are so popular around here, too. I think they’re even more commonly used in N. Wisconsin. You’re right–they are tough evergreens, and they look great, particularly in borders. I have a few Hydrangeas and have been very happy with them, except during drought years when I had to water them nearly every day. But they’re so gorgeous! I don’t have much experience with Rhododendrons, but my mom had one that she moved from house to house for several decades and it performed well in every location–even in N. Wisconsin. Lovely suggestions, Pat.

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