Japanese Boxwood

Small leaves adapt well to hedging.

Strictly formal boxwood hedges are traditional components of old formal rose gardens. In California, Japanese boxwood, Buxus microphylla, had always been more popular than English boxwood, which may be more common where winter is cooler. Although it grows too slowly for high hedges, it gets high enough to obscure gnarled lower growth of roses.

Mature plants are generally less than three feet tall and wide, although they can get a bit larger if they get a chance. The oval and glossy evergreen leaves are only about half an inch or an inch long, but relatively thick, so are very conducive to formal shearing. Foliar texture is nicely dense but not too congested. Gray or pale brown bark is seldom visible.

Old fashioned Japanese boxwood, which remains the most common in old gardens, has a somewhat light or yellowish green color. Modern cultivars are darker green. A common problem with old formal hedges is the addition of modern cultivars or even other species to fill gaps. The darker foliage will not conform to the lighter foliage, so ruins the formality.

Pittosporum eugenioides

Pittosporum eugenioides leaves have distinctively wavy margins.

Large shorn hedges or informal screens are the more popular functions of Pittosporum eugenioides. It works like a modern and more relaxed option to privet. What few garden enthusiasts know is that it can alternatively be allowed grow into a small tree, either as a standard (on a single trunk) or with multiple trunks. It grows rather efficiently to more than twenty feet tall and about half as broad while young, and as it matures, can eventually get about thirty feet tall and broad.

The glossy leaves have appealingly wavy margins and distinctively pale midribs. The slightly fragrant flowers are only pale yellow, and are not abundant among young trees. Big old trees often bloom enough in autumn to be pleasantly fragrant. Stems and foliage are lemony fragrant when pruned or shorn. However, the common name of ‘lemonwood’ (or tarata) is not so common locally for Pittosporum eugenioides.

Hopbush

Hopbush makes a nice small tree.

Johnny jump up and jumping cholla have no more than amusing names in common with hopbush, Dodonea viscosa. Neither a dangerous cactus nor a docile annual, hopbush is an elegantly upright and evergreen shrub. It is very popular for both informal and formally shorn hedging. With pruning, it can become a small tree with handsomely furrowed bark.

Hopbush has potential to get about as tall as a two story house, particularly with pruning for tree form. Conversely, with only occasional pruning for hedge form, it is just as happy to stay just six feet tall. Trees with single and straight trunks fit nicely into narrow spaces. Trees with a few irregular trunks that lean outwardly are more sculptural for larger areas.

The narrow evergreen leaves are about two or three inches long, with light bronzy color. ‘Purpurea’ has purplish bronze color, but does not grow as vigorously. Most hopbush are female, and generate interestingly papery seed. Bloom and seed production are variable though, and some specimens become male. Roots should be complaisant with concrete.

Thorny Vegetation Is Naturally Repellent

Black locust is painful to handle.

Roses might be more fun to grow and prune without their thorns. Blackberries are easier to pick from thornless canes. Thorny vegetation is simply unpleasant to work with. Some very desirable plants, such as roses and most blackberries, are innately thorny. The only alternative to contending with their thorny condition is to grow something totally different.

Thorns and similar structures are as diverse as foliage, with a few distinct classifications. True thorns are simply modified stems, like those of hawthorn. Spines are modified foliar structures or leaves, such as those of cacti. Prickles, such as those of rose, are modified epidermal structures. Spinose foliar margins, like those of holly, serve the same purpose. 

The purpose that thorny vegetation serves is defense. It intends to inhibit consumption of foliage, fruit or bloom. That is why some trees are thorny only while young and low to the ground, then almost thornless as they grow beyond the reach of grazing animals. Thorny trunks of honeylocust may protect seed pods from bears, so birds can disperse the seed. 

It is therefore no mystery that many of the thorniest plants are endemic to desert regions. The scarcity of edible vegetation in such regions increases the need for protection. Also, it is no mystery that most grazing animals are not too deterred by thorny vegetation to get enough to eat. Otherwise, roses and firethorn would be exempt from the ravages of deer.

Despite its intentions of deterrence, thorny vegetation inhabits home gardens for various reasons. Some produces desirable bloom or fruit, like roses and blackberries. Cacti and agaves develop remarkably striking forms. Such plants should be situated appropriately. Rose canes can be bothersome close to walkway. Agaves can be downright dangerous. 

Thorny shrubbery, such as firethorn, barberry, Natal plum and English holly, is a practical deterrent for unwanted traffic. Firethorn espaliered on the top of a fence is as effective as barbed wire, and is more appealing. Maintenance of thorny plants is more of a challenge than for thornless plants. Otherwise, thorny plants should be more popular than they are.

Fraser’s Photinia

Bronzed new foliage fades to green.

Almost all photinia in local landscapes is Fraser’s photinia, Photinia X fraseri, which is a thornless and fruitless hybrid of two species that are now rare. Some of the old fashioned photinia are thorny. Some produce copious berries that can get messy, or feed birds who can get messy. More modern cultivars of Fraser’s photinia are becoming more available.

Fraser’s photinia is popular as a shorn evergreen hedge. New foliage that develops after shearing is richly reddish bronze, and fades to dark green. Bronze color is best in spring, after late winter shearing. Summer shearing stimulates a repeat performance, although it may not last as long before the foliage fades to green. Shearing enhances foliar density.

Unshorn photinia can develop into small trees as tall as fifteen feet, with new growth that is a bit less richly colored than that of shorn photinia. It also blooms, often profusely, with big and rounded trusses of tiny creamy white flowers. Bloom is not impressively colorful. Floral fragrance is objectionable to some. All photinia types are susceptible to fire blight.

Shearing Can Not Fix Everything

Shearing enhances foliar density without bloom.

Mowers are for mowing lawns and shallow ground cover. Blowers are for blowing debris from pavement, decking and other flat surfaces. The names of these tools suggest these particular functions. Those of us who use such tools tend to be aware of their limitations. Why are simple concepts of shearing and the associated tools so difficult to understand? 

‘Mow, blow and go’ gardeners are not so bad if they simply mow, blow and go. They tend to the two most significant but also least pleasurable tasks in the garden, and then leave before causing problems. Most are also qualified to add bedding plants or shear hedges. However, some will shear anything that is within reach of their powered hedge trimmers.  

Shearing is for hedges or shrubbery that is strictly foliar. There are few exceptions. Such shearing should be performed properly, and only for the few plants that are conducive to it. The process promotes foliar density, but also generally inhibits bloom. For hedges that function as living fences in the background of more interesting plants, this is no problem.

Otherwise, shearing plants that are not conducive to it ruins appealing form, and inhibits or prevents appealing bloom. Privet and photinia perform well as shorn hedges because their dense evergreen foliage is their primary asset. Their bloom is actually undesirable. Their natural forms are unremarkable, but their shorn forms can be remarkably practical.

Frequent or untimely shearing prevents lemon bottlebrush and oleander from blooming. However, shearing immediately after a bloom phase stimulates new growth to bloom for a subsequent phase. New growth only needs an opportunity to mature and bloom before removal. Such potentially blooming stems need extra space to extend prior to blooming.

As practical as it is for hedges, shearing ruins the foliar texture of other plants. Heavenly bamboo is worthlessly shabby without its naturally intricate foliar texture. Juniper retains good color, but becomes boringly plain. Rhododendron and hibiscus become disfigured and can not bloom. Each of these plants and all others are discriminating about pruning. Few are agreeable to shearing.

Shiny Xylosma

Shiny xylosma has pleasantly glossy foliage.

Where it had been left to develop naturally in old freeway landscapes, shiny xylosma, Xylosma congestum, grew as small trees. The largest are significantly taller than twenty feet. They can be pruned up to expose their nicely flaking bark on sculptural trunks and stems. The evergreen foliage is shiny and rather yellowish green, somewhat like that of camphor tree. The slightly serrate leaves are about two inches long or a bit longer. The tiny and potentially fragrant flowers are rarely seen, and not worth looking for. In refined landscapes, shiny xylosma is popular as a shorn hedge. Xylosma congestum ‘Compacta’ has denser growth, and can be kept only a few feet high if necessary. Vigorous shoots can have nasty thorns hidden in their deceptively gentle foliage. Once established, shiny xylosma does not need much water. It prefers full sun exposure, but will tolerate a bit of shade.

There Are Rules To Hedging

Few plants are conducive to shearing

All the wrong plants get shorn. Mow, blow and go gardeners are known for shearing everything that they can reach into creepy and unnaturally geometric shapes, usually flared out at the top, and bulging obtrusively into otherwise usable space. Yet, functional formally shorn hedges are passe and almost never shorn properly.

First of all, a formal hedge should be uniform, which means that all the plants that comprise it should be the same, and planted at the same distance from each other. Any plants within a formal hedge that die should be replaced with the same plant. A single English boxwood plant added to a Japanese boxwood hedge will always stand out with a different shade of green and growth pattern. Seedlings of other plants that grow up into a hedge should be removed before they become part of it.

Secondly, a formal hedge should be contained within defined boundaries. It should get neither too tall, nor too deep (from front to back). A fat hedge wastes space. There is no excuse for a hedge to encroach obtrusively over walkways, driveways or patios.

The vertical faces of a hedge should be completely vertical or slope very slightly inward at the top, but should certainly not slope outward to shade lower growth. A slight inward slope is more important on a northern face of plants that are sensitive to shade.

Hand pruning hedges (with hand shears) produces the best finish, but takes quite a bit of time for big hedges. Shearing with typical hedge shears cuts leaves as well as stems, so can cause foliage with large leaves to look a bit tattered for a while. Hedges that grow fast may need to be shorn twice or more annually. Some hedges can get shorn back aggressively once annually, and then allowed to fluff out evenly through the rest of the year. Bottlebrush and escallonia hedges can bloom nicely and evenly if shorn only once annually.

Glossy and wax leaf privet are among the most traditional of formal hedges. Glossy privet can get quite tall, but wax leaf privet actually has glossier foliage. Photinia and shiny xylosma have a bit more color, but want a bit more space (from front to back). Boxwoods make very nice small hedges. Pittosporums are available in various shapes and sizes. Pittosporum eugenioides gets quite tall, and can be kept quite lean. Pittosporum tobira is shorter and wider.

Pittosporum tobira

There are too many other plants known as ‘mock orange’ for Pittosporum tobira to still go by that name, which is why it is more commonly known by its Latin name, or simply as ‘tobira’. The pleasantly fragrant flowers do not smell too much like those of orange anyway. The glossy and dark green leaves are like those of some hollies, without the distinctive prickly points. ‘Variegata’ has lighter green foliage variegated with white, but does not bloom as much. Dwarf cultivars, both variegated and unvariegatd, bloom even less. ‘Variegata’ has a tendency to occasionally produce stems of green (unvariegated) foliage that grow more vigorously and can overwhelm the original variegated growth if not pruned out. Common green Pittosporum tobira can grow as a small tree in the partial shade of larger trees, but is more often maintained as dense shrubbery less than ten feet tall. It makes a nice dense hedge in full sun, but unfortunately does not bloom if shorn regularly. All cultivars are resilient to drought once established.

English Boxwood

English boxwood is a classic formal hedge.

Good old fashioned boxwood hedges really look silly if just a single missing plant get replaced with a different cultivar (cultivated variety) or specie. Most of the older boxwood hedges are the traditional, but somewhat yellowish Japanese boxwood. Most middle aged hedges are a relatively newer cultivar that is a bit greener. Modern boxwood hedges are more likely a cultivar of English boxwood, Buxus sempervirens.

English boxwood resembles Japanese boxwood, but has slightly narrower leaves that produce a slightly more objectionable aroma when shorn or otherwise disturbed. These opposite (paired) glossy leaves are only about a quarter to half an inch wide and about twice as long. The color is slightly darker with a more ‘olive’ tone. Wild English boxwood in Europe can grow as small trees. Most garden varieties are fortunately much shorter and more compact, which is why they are so popularly shorn into small formal hedges. They also do well as topiary. ‘Aureo Variegata’ is variegated with nicely contrasting cream colored leaf margins.