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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

Plant Life
Bet on Hedges
A living wall can give a garden form, color and contrast
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At Heronswood Nursery near Kingston, European hornbeams (Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata') have been pruned into a rhythmic series of vaulted cathedral windows for hedging that cleverly divides while it frames and reveals.
ON A RECENT visit to Vancouver, B.C., I found myself admiring the mature hedging enclosing so many of the homes and gardens in the older neighborhoods. I saw few fences and even fewer open, grassy front lawns. Instead, the streets were lined with textured living walls of remarkable heft and height. From the outside, the effect was sturdy, peaceful, established, formal and deeply green. From the inside, quiet, private gardens made perfect backdrops for colorful and varied plantings.

I'm afraid our tradition of open lawn doesn't serve us well; many of our front gardens are left with little privacy and few discernible boundaries. Evergreens are usually pulled back from the street to surround the house and cover windows while suffering from lack of water beneath the eaves and reflected light off the walls. Doesn't it make more sense to push those plantings out to make private, functional space for flowers, vegetables, and maybe a terrace for dining?

Be sure to check local regulations, however, before planting a hedge. Oddly, the city of Edmonds limits hedges to a height of 6 feet but allows Douglas firs to grow to their full size. The city defines hedges as "a dense row of shrubs or low trees," so taller plants that don't fit this definition aren't regulated. Seattle, Bellevue and Kirkland don't have such hedge-unfriendly rules, except where their height might pose a safety hazard along a road.

Perhaps we've rejected hedges because of the ubiquitous photinia, laurel and Leyland cypress. These have been overused for understandable reasons — they grow quickly (often so quickly they're difficult to maintain) and are sturdily evergreen. But with so many more interesting choices it's a shame to stick to the familiar. I do have to admit one of my favorite gardens is hedged in laurel, regimentally clipped into a flat, dark curtain that sets off a little grove of white-barked birches.
Illustration Now In Bloom
The Gold Laced group of primroses (Primula polyanthus) have striking gold or silver trim on mahogany or near-black flowers. Bunches of golden-eyed little flowers are held in whorled clusters above the foliage, the dark coloration a clear clue to their Victorian heritage. Each scalloped petal appears bordered in lace, and the distinctive trimming also runs down the middle of the petals, making it appear as if each flower consists of 10 rather than the familiar five petals. Like all primroses, these beauties prefer woodland conditions with semi-shade and rich soil, but can tolerate sun if the soil remains moist.
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For a fine example of a trim, tidy evergreen hedge kept at a neighborly height, take a look at the Osmanthus delavayi hedge that surrounds the entry garden at the Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 N.E. 41st St. The tiny, dark-green leaves of this plant are ideal for clipping into neat, formal hedging. In early March the hedge is smothered in small, white flowers of unsurpassed sweetness. People who pass through the garden always pause to drink in the near-tropical smell on the winter air. All this from a hard-working, year-round hedge that divides the garden into a series of outdoor rooms.

Other useful low-growing hedging plants are glossy, easily-clipped boxwood and its look-alike Japanese holly (Ilex crenata). Boxleaf honeysuckle, Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold,' has yellow leaves. For a less formal look, you might try Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepsis indica) or an upright rosemary like 'Tuscan Blue' for its aromatic foliage ideal to clip for soups or casseroles. Escallonia 'Apple Blossom' is slightly tender, but forms a lushly blooming hedge of pink flowers in warmer gardens. No plant has a richer, darker green sheen than yew, a traditional, but not quite expected, hedging plant. Taxus x media 'Brownii' has a dense, rounded shape that naturally grows to only about 8 feet tall.

For hedges tall enough to ensure privacy, Pacific wax myrtle (Myrica californica) or Canada hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) have interesting textures. The taller species of mahonia form a wild-looking hedge with spikes of yellow winter flowers. One of the loveliest hedges I've seen in Seattle is in lower Wallingford — a high, thick wall of winter-blooming Viburnum tinus 'Spring Bouquet.' It is carved into a gracious arch over the gate, with evergreen leaves elegantly decked out in clusters of fragrant pale-pink flowers from late autumn through spring. I drive by just to imagine how it must feel to be digging in the dirt inside that blooming green wall on an early spring day, enveloped by its sweet scent and sheltering foliage.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.

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