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Good Hedges Make Good Neighbors

Hedges define boundaries, break the wind, provide food, and shelter for our wild neighbors

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Hedges are multipurpose and can be used in most any landscape. iStockphoto.com

When is a fence not a fence? When it's a living, thriving hedge. Hedgerows—mixed species of vegetation growing along a line and pleated together as they grow—were a common sight in rural America as recently as 60 years ago. Farmers used them as field boundaries, windbreaks, and a means of keeping certain wildlife away from plants.

But in our modern culture of speed, convenience, and quickly installed metal fences, hedgerows have unfortunately fallen out of fashion—a loss that's more than just aesthetic. As veritable magnets for birds and butterflies, hedgerows promote biodiversity and offer vital wildlife travel corridors in a deceptively compact area. Owls, quail, toads, bats—you name it, and you just might spot it in your hedgerow.

Equally important is the role hedgerows play in the survival of migratory birds. In the stripped landscape of autumn, birds use hedgerows as full-service rest stops on their routes—offering both food and protective shelter. Nonmigratory birds profit from this food and shelter as well. Planting just one or two rows of berry-bearing shrubs can attract more than 90 species of birds.

Hedgerows also serve a number of practical purposes for homeowners. They define property boundaries, limit outside noise, and provide privacy, and they do so in a unique, eye-pleasing way. They also function as windbreaks and, during the winter holidays, provide trimmings galore.

Don't let visions of rigidly sculpted hedges and topiaries deter you—aside from annual pruning, hedgerows require relatively little upkeep.

Things to consider

Think about your hedgerow's purpose. Is your primary goal attracting songbirds, or would you rather lure a wide range of wildlife? Perhaps you want to deter neighbors' pets from entering your yard, or maybe you'd prefer the hedge to serve as a private screen. Specific types of vegetation will enhance the purpose of your hedge.

Tree and shrub choices will also be influenced by environmental factors and how much space is available. Bear in mind that the longer the hedge, the more opportunities it will create for wildlife diversity.

Getting started

There are many different types of hedgerows and ways to construct them. Following are instructions for building a traditional A-shaped hedgerow—five to six feet wide on top and eight feet wide through the bottom, a good choice for attracting wildlife.

The best time to begin your project is during the spring or fall.

  • Prepare the area by ridding it of existing vegetation.
  • Dig a trench two feet wide and 18 inches deep.
  • If you're staggering plantings to form a dense wall—make the trench wider or dig two parallel trenches.
  • Spread a layer of compost four to eight inches thick, followed by a layer of mulch in the bottom of the trench.
  • First lower bare-rooted trees into the trench to form the hedgerow's roof. Place them a foot apart and shake them gently when covering roots with soil. Water the trees well and lay down more mulch or anti-weed matting.
  • Place smaller plants one and a half to three feet apart to help them grow into one another at a rapid rate.
  • Position plants on a 45-degree slant and intersperse fast-growing shrubs among slower-growing ones.

What should I plant?

While native trees and shrubs are best for migratory birds, a hedgerow traditionally incorporates a mixture of evergreen and deciduous plants.

Strong-wooded small trees serve as a backbone to a hedgerow. If your property is small, leave out the largest trees and choose smaller varieties of understory trees and shrubs. Fill in the gaps with as many different types of shrubs as possible.

A good hedgerow needs connecting plants to bind the layers together. With any climber plants, it's important to keep their stems supported until they're mature enough to grip the hedge firmly and weave themselves through the hedge's layers.

To turn your hedgerow into a five-star eatery—for you and wildlife—plant mulberry, persimmon, Cornelian cherry dogwood, holly, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, serviceberry, papaw, and elder trees.

Flowering dogwood, sassafras, spicebush, American elderberry, chokeberry, rusty haw, inkberry holly, eastern red cedar, Virginia creeper, wild grape, eastern columbine, fringed bleeding heart, coral honeysuckle, and trumpet creeper will appeal particularly to songbirds, turning your hedgerow into a top-of-the-line soundstage.


The most wildlife-friendly trimming policy involves cutting branches every third year or longer so that flowers bloom for pollinators, followed by berries and seeds for birds. Evergreen and deciduous plants, however, require annual—and heavy—pruning. Early in the season, remove half to two-thirds of the new evergreen growth. Don't cut during the April-July nesting season.

Every time shrubs grow a foot, cut them back six inches. Prune at an upward angle to ensure that sunlight reaches the bottom branches.

Patience is a necessity. It could take three years before your hedge has grown enough to attract birds, and three or four more years before birds will entrust it with their nests. Meanwhile, happy hedging!


AHS Practical Guides: Hedges by Michael Pollock. New York: DK Pub., 2001.
Fences and Hedges: And Other Garden Dividers by Richard Bird and Stephen Robson. New York: Ryland Peters & Small, 2002.
Garden Walls, Fences and Hedges by Kathy Sheldon. Asheville, NC: Lark Books, 2001.
Hedges: Creating Screens & Edges by Averil Bedrich. West Sussex, UK: Guild of Master Craftsman Pubns Ltd., 2002.

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