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.

English Yew

English yew has inhabited landscapes and gardens for centuries. (This is not my picture.)

It is difficult to know how big any of the various cultivars of English yew,Taxus baccata, will eventually get, and how long they will take to get that big. Most can get almost as tall as thirty feet. Some can get nearly twice as tall. However, they can take more than a century or several centuries to do so. Old specimens around Europe are significantly older than two thousand years. Slow growth is an advantage for formal hedges that get shorn only annually. English yew prefers regular watering. Partial shade is not a problem.

Irish yew is actually a cultivar of English yew with densely upright growth. The various golden yews have yellowish foliage. Otherwise, most English yews have finely textured dark green foliage on angular stems that resemble those of redwood. Individual leaves are very narrow, and only about half and inch to an inch long. The peeling dark brown bark resembles that of large junipers, but not quite as shaggy. English yew is toxic.

Shiny Xylosma

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Shiny xylosma should get more respect.

As a backdrop for more interesting plants, shiny xylosma, Xylosma congestum, may not get the respect that it deserves. If it seems to be a bit too common in some big landscapes, it is probably because it is so practical. It can function like the strictly shorn hedges that were popular decades earlier, but is a bit more adaptable to modern landscape styles. It can be formal or quite informal.

Formal hedges of shiny xylosma are typically no taller than eight feet, and a bit more plump than old fashioned privet hedges. They can get a bit sparse if kept too lean. Informal hedges are mostly lower and plumper, with casually irregular surfaces and no corners. Old shiny xylosma can grow as a small tree more than eight feet tall. Younger specimens are of the shorter cultivar, ‘Compacta’.

Established shiny xylosma is surprisingly resilient. Roots disperse impressive distances to reach moisture so that old specimens can survive without direct irrigation. Although, they prefer regular watering. Overgrown specimens can eventually regenerate nicely from coppicing or pollarding. The main disadvantage is that vigorous new growth will likely develop concealed but sharp thorns.

Cherry Laurel

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Cherry laurel makes a delightful hedge.

Victorian landscapes made good use of cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus. It works well as a large formal hedge. For more relaxed modern landscapes, it makes delightful informal screen. The main reason that it is now less popular than other hedging shrubbery is that it gets rather broad if not shorn back regularly. If allowed to grow as a low rounded tree, it can get twenty-five feet high!

Regularly shearing is not necessarily frequent. It should be efficient though. Confinement for such broad shrubbery is important. If shorn back farther than where the outer surface is desired late in winter, fresh new foliage can fluff out nicely within allowable space through spring. Subsequent aggressive shearing to maintain confinement may only be necessary once or twice during summer.

The big leaves are about three inches long, and luxuriantly glossy. If hedges get shorn less aggressively, but more frequently than two or three times annually, such big leaves can be rather shabby much of the time. If shorn less frequently, small trusses of creamy white flowers may get a chance to bloom. Cultivars are more compact than the species. One cultivar is variegated with pale gold.

A Strong Foundation

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Before: Camellias left the foundation exposed a long time ago, but instead obscured the view from the windows above.

‘Foundation planting’, which most of us think of as vegetation intended to merely obscure a foundation behind lower and prettier plants, has a simple utilitarian origin. Before homes were so commonly outfitted with rain gutters like they are now, densely shrubby foundation plantings diffused water that fell from eaves, and limited splattering of mud onto foundations and walls.

Nowadays, foundation planting only needs to look good, and maybe obscure crawlspace vents or exposed undersides of decks. They might be allowed to get as high as window sills, or higher.

These camellias got more than a bit too high. They had not obscured the cinder block foundation in a very long time, and did not contribute much to the shingled wall above. What was worse was that all of their best foliage and bloom obscured the view from the window above, and obstructed sunlight to the interior. They were impressive specimens, but were not doing their job.

We tried to prune their canopies lower and thinner, in order to promote more lower growth that we could prune down to later. They responded by merely replacing what was pruned away, exactly where it was pruned away from. We considered relocating the camellias to where such big and lanky camellia trees would be desirable, but they are too old and firmly rooted in place.

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After: Camellias can either start over or die.

The only option was to coppice them. It was quick and easy. We cut them to the ground with the expectation that they will either regenerate from their stumps or die. If they die, we will not miss them. (Okay, I might.) The new growth will obscure the foundation well, and after a few years, should resume blooming. They will be patchy if some but not all do survive, but we tried.

The remaining sculptural specimen obscures no windows.

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Stumps are a few inches high. Any new growth should hopefully develop on top, just above grade.

Waxleaf Privet

90918Here on the West Coast, privets had traditionally functioned like hollies had in the East. They are conducive to shearing into the big formal hedges that were popular during the Victorian period. Since then, as gardening space became more limited, the common glossy privet became less popular than the more compact and complaisant waxleaf privet, Ligustrum japonicum ‘Texanum’.

Since it does not get much higher than ten feet, and typically stays less than eight feet tall, waxleaf privet is proportionate to urban gardening. As a formal hedge, it can be shorn to stay less than two feet from front to back, although taller hedges look better if allowed to get bulkier. As an unshorn informal screen, it should not get much broader than six feet, with an appealingly billowy form.

Foliage is evergreen and remarkably glossy, sort of like that of holly, but without the prickles. Regularly shorn hedges should not bloom, but might produce a few trusses of tiny white flowers inside of the shorn surfaces. In sunny situations, unshorn glossy privet blooms profusely enough to be mildly fragrant in spring. Bloom sometimes produces floppy clusters of tiny but messy black berries.

Photinia

60316As a shorn evergreen hedge or simple shorn shrubbery, photinia, Photinia X fraseri, produces handsomely glossy bronzy red foliage without bloom. It is best if shorn as weather warms at the end of winter, and then allowed to grow out for a while. It can be shorn again through summer as bronzy foliage fades to green, but should not be shorn so often that it is always deprived of red foliage.

Without regular shearing, photinia becomes a small tree or large shrub. Trees can either be staked on single trunks, or allowed to develop multiple trunks. New growth in spring is not as vigorous as it would be in response to shearing, so is not as colorful. Domed trusses of tiny white flowers bloom about as soon as new foliage appears. The floral fragrance can be objectionable to some.

Only the biggest and oldest trees reach high voltage cables. Most stay less than fifteen feet tall and broad. Hedges can be kept less than six feet tall, and ideally, should be kept less than half as deep (from front to back). Photinia can grow rather well while young, but then grows slower as it matures. Partial shade or a lack of water through summer compromise foliar color and density.

Pruning Late Might Be Justified

90313thumbThere may not be exceptions to every rule, but there are a few exceptions to the rule that winter is the best time for pruning. It is generally true that most plants are the most dormant through the coolest part of winter. It is also true that while they are the most dormant, most plants are less sensitive to pruning, as well as other horticultural techniques that interfere with their normal function.

However, certain ‘special’ plants get pruned later, either because it is healthier for them, or just because they are allowed to do what they do best in spring before getting deprived of some of what they need to do it with. Some get pruned rather soon after coming out of winter dormancy. Some should probably wait for their new spring growth to mature a bit. It is not as confusing as it sounds.

Evergreen plants that drop much of their older foliage through winter should probably be pruned late in winter or early in spring, essentially at the last minute, just before new foliage develops. If shorn early and deprived of outer foliage that should survive through winter, photinia looks scraggly as it continues to lose much of what had been inner foliage until new foliage develops in spring.

Red twig dogwood and some types of willows that are coppiced or pollarded to maximize production of their colorful twigs should be allowed to show off their colorful bark for as long as possible. Like photinia, they too can be pruned at the last minute, just before vascular activity resumes. However, red twig Japanese maple really should be pruned in winter so it does not bleed afterward.

Flowering cherry, plum, peach, crabapple and quince are grown for prolific but sterile bloom which is diminished by winter pruning. If they need it, they can instead be pruned after bloom, but before too much foliage develops, or after such foliage matures in late spring or early summer. They do not need to be pruned nearly as aggressively as fruiting trees that would otherwise produce too much burdensome fruit. Some may only need to have dead stems pruned out.

Bullwinkle II

P90303What makes this Bullwinkle worse than most is that I pruned it like this myself. What makes it worse than worse is that it did not need to be pruned in this disfiguring manner for clearance from utility cables like the last one I wrote about was. https://tonytomeo.com/2018/08/08/horridculture-bullwinkle/ It is instead an attempt to renovate an overgrown hedge that was behaving something like a fat hedge. https://tonytomeo.com/2018/06/06/horridculture-fat-hedges/

In fact, the only reason it did not qualify as a fat hedge is that it had plenty of space for all of its superfluous bulk The side to the left was only beginning to encroach into the driveway on that side, and was easily pruned back to the curb, which for now, is adequate confinement. The side on the right was only beginning to encroach into the upstairs balconies, and was likewise easily pruned back for reasonable clearance.

The problems with this hedge were within and on top. It had been shorn back only for minimal confinement for so long that all the foliage on the sides was within a thin external layer. Pruning any farther back would have exposed a thicket of necrotic stems in various degrees of deterioration that had been accumulating within the interior for many years. Almost all growth was directed to and concentrated on top, which shaded the interior and lower stems even more than the accumulation of necrotic crud within did. Since the top had always been pruned down to the same height, all subsequent growth after pruning on top was above where it had been pruned previously, which was of course above the height where it was wanted, and consequently removed when the hedge was pruned again. There was no incentive for lower foliage to develop.

The hedge is there to obscure the view of a building on the left from the windows of the building on the right. The most important foliage for that purpose is the lower foliage, which is precisely what is lacking. Almost all resources were going to the upper foliage, which was contributing nothing, while shading out the lower growth. Although the inner thicket of necrotic stems was partially helping to obscure the unwanted view, it was also inhibiting healthier lower growth.

The illustration shows what remains after the useless top and necrotic interior were removed. After the picture was taken, the left and right sides of the hedge were pruned lower to eliminate the useless upper foliage that was not contributing to the function of the hedge. As unsightly as it is, it partially obscures the view of the building on the left from the building on the right, and will obscure it more as new foliage develops. Now that the interior is exposed, new growth should develop within the interior, and lower to the ground. Because the area is partially shaded by nearby redwoods, the exposed interior limbs are not likely to be damaged by sun scald.

After the new interior growth is established and obscuring the view, the external sides that are there now can be pruned back farther and sloped inward toward the top so that the lower growth of the hedge gets more sunlight. The hedge certainly does not need to be as wide as it is. It would be easier to maintain if it were narrower and so close to the allowable boundaries. Ultimately, with appropriate pruning over the next few years, this old hedge should be restored.

English Boxwood

90306While flashier but typically weaker modern cultivars of so many other specie are being developed, the most popular of the many cultivars of English boxwood, Buxus sempervirens, remain the same. There is not much to improve on. Most cultivars get only a few feet tall, and are densely foliated with inch long evergreen leaves that are excellent for topiary and low formally shorn hedges.

One of the difficulties with formal hedges, or any formal application, is replacement of any specimens that die. There are not very many of the different cultivars available locally; but it can be quite difficult to distinguish between some of them. One specimen of the wrong cultivar ruins conformity! Another concern is that the aroma of the foliage when disturbed may be objectionable to some.

In the wild, English boxwood grows as small trees or rather larger shrubs with relatively open structure. Locally, such specimens are only very rarely found in old Victorian landscapes, such as at the Winchester House. ‘Suffruticosa’ is so compact that it popularly allowed to grow as as unshorn and nearly spherical shrubs. ‘Argenteo-Variegata’, ‘Variegata’ and ‘Marginata’ are variegated.