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.
There are rules to hedging. For example, hedges should be uniform and exclusive to just a single cultivar. A modern ‘Green Beauty’ boxwood will never conform within a hedge of more yellowish old fashioned boxwood. Hedges should also remain within confinement. It is important to shear them back from obtrusion into walkways and other usable spaces.
It is not as simple as it seems to be. That is why so few hedges get proper maintenance. Almost all occupy and therefore waste more space than they need. Most have wide tops that shade out narrower lower growth. Moreover, many plants that are not components of hedges all too commonly succumb to inappropriate shearing too. It is sheer shear abuse!
Even if done properly, only hedges and a few other plants are conducive to shearing and hedging. It is an aggressive procedure that compromises form, texture and bloom cycles of involved plants. For hedges, that is not a problem. They need not bloom, and adapt to a refined hedged form, which is more desirable than their natural shrubby form would be.
However, it is important to not unnecessarily shear plants that bloom, or provide intricate foliar texture or form. Shearing deprives rhododendron of young floral buds. It ruins foliar texture of Heavenly bamboo, and foliar form of Japanese maple. It is acceptable to shear boxwood only because it responds by generating such appealingly uniform foliar growth.
With proper scheduling, it is possible to shear only a few blooming plants without ruining all of their bloom. Aggressive shearing after the early bloom of oleander and bottlebrush leaves them with space to grow enough to bloom again during autumn. Without sufficient space to grow, they will require subsequent shearing, which will ruin subsequent bloom.
It is better to shear some of the simpler hedges, such as privet and boxwood, shortly after winter. They regenerate lush growth immediately afterward, and do not mind two or three annual shearings. The last shearing should be early enough to allow a bit of growth prior to autumn. Photinia generates appealingly bronzed new growth in response to shearing. Also, frequent shearing inhibits potentially undesirable bloom.
Pittosporum tenuifolium (or nigricans) has been employed as a resilient shorn or unshorn hedge for decades. The more contemporary cultivar ‘Marjorie Channon’ though, is grown more for variegated foliage. The light green leaves have creamy white borders and undulate margins. Mature unshorn shrubs get only eight feet high and broad, and are not quite as dense as the straight species. They may not be so useful as large hedging, but can provide striking contrast and depth to deep green foliage.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.