Hedges without edges

Times Staff Writer

PRUNING trees and shrubs to form hedges is as old as gardening. In the great estates of the past, hedges framed views, defined borders and marked transitions to wilderness. In modern Los Angeles, an average lot is a sixth of an acre. A hedge allows homeowners to soften the transition to the street or blot out an eyesore, be it an alley, a McMansion, a crack house, a neighbor’s kitchen window, a jalopy or junkyard dog. Increasingly, hedges no longer frame views. They are the view.

So why not make them beautiful? Set in a line, everything from paddle cactus to giant sequoias can create a hedge. Yet for some reason, fewer than 10 species dominate: boxwood, ficus, Texas privet, ficus, podocarpus, ficus, photinia, ficus, juniper and especially ficus.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 25, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Hedges -- In a Home section article Thursday about hedges, a cover photo of Mark Hasencamp’s Hancock Park home was credited to Times photographer Robert Lachman. It should have been credited to Times photographer Al Seib.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 02, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 6 Features Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Hedges -- In last Thursday’s Home section article about hedges, a cover photo of Mark Hasencamp’s home credited to Times photographer Robert Lachman should have been credited to Times photographer Al Seib.

It would be easy to blame Home Depot for failing to stock greater variety, but that wouldn’t explain what we do to the plants after we buy them. Our pruning finishes off whatever personality a plant might possess. Somewhere, somehow, the idea sneaked into the collective imagination that hedges have to be rectilinear.


They don’t.

This is in praise of hedges without edges.

As causes go, the importance of fluffing out our hedges might sound on par with a campaign to secure pedicures for zoo elephants. Until, that is, a credible estimate is given of how much land we devote to this type of planting. Peter Gordon, professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, helped to estimate the collective length of the hedges in greater metropolitan Los Angeles.

“There are, say, 15 million people in greater L.A.,” he writes by e-mail. “Assume 60% are in single-family homes, and 2.5 people per home. That’s 3.6 million single-family homes.” Then assume the average lot size is about 100 feet by 75 feet, he says. “Say half of these have hedges through one 75-foot edge. That’s roughly 26,000 miles.” In other words, that’s more than the equatorial circumference of the world. And we’re not counting hedges surrounding apartments, parks, offices and so on.

So, hedges aren’t trivial. The greater the thought we put into our global green cummerbund, the less water, work, noise and property disputes down the line. We might even attract songbirds.

Our top 10 hedging plants became the equivalent of garden wallpaper not just because they survived us, but also because they grew fast. That view we wanted to block can be eclipsed in three to five years. The only problem is that hedges don’t stop growing. The next 30 years may be spent in privacy, but you will be on a maintenance treadmill. Where else in the world is so much greenery planted, watered and pruned only to be clipped and thrown away?

Then there is the Berlin Wall factor. When you want a hedge to run between two tightly placed homes, and the view that you are obscuring is right into your neighbor’s bathroom, dense is good, narrow is vital. This is a job for Italian cypress or sweet bay. Yet out front, a block-like hedge can feel hostile, as if you’re building bombs or cultivating anthrax in the living room.

Finally, there is wildlife value. Oft-shorn hedges become so dense that even a goldfinch would be hard-pressed to find refuge inside the blocky structure. As hedges no longer frame nature but stand in for it, we should remember bird song.

In juggling all this, few resources are better than the Sunset Western Garden Book and the newly published “California Native Plants for the Garden” by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien. After reading, reconnoiter. One of the best places to shop for ideas is Hancock Park, L.A.’s unofficial garden design showground. Toward Beverly Boulevard, where the mansions of blue bloods give way to small, Mediterranean-style homes, variations of two hedges could be used for almost any small home in Southern California.

Both began as the work of garden designer Judy Horton. In two compact front gardens, she defined the property lines by running rows of rosemary, kept low and pruned flat for a formal boundary. Rising from behind these are boughs of that gently ballooning, silver-leaved fruit tree, the pineapple guava.

Art collector Mark Hasencamp bought the property with Horton’s structure intact and liked it so well, he left it. Working with another design firm, Naturescapes, they added olive trees behind the guavas and along the parkway, creating a shimmering screen that does indeed hedge the house from the street and creates a small courtyard garden, yet is an attraction for the passerby. The word Hasencamp likes for the effect: “romantic.”

Not far away from Hasencamp’s home, the corner house of filmmaker Scott Goldstein borders a busy cross street. He had a narrow, precipitously angled strip of hillside to place a hedge. Nobody would have blamed him for putting in a wall of ficus and hitting them with Miracle-Gro and weekly water. Instead, he used a dusky variety of California natives.

Working east to west, starting at an existing redwood, to cover the space where he needed height to shelter the garden on the other side of the wall, he used a line of California bays. They are the opposite of fast -- they grow maybe a foot a year. But smell the bewitching aroma of the crushed leaves, and their appeal is clear. As marine dew bakes off after foggy mornings, the air around it is pure spice. After five years, Goldstein’s bays are just topping a wall behind them, catching afternoon light. This scented solution will work for decades before he need think about serious pruning.

Continuing west along the verge, he added manzanita, ceanothus, toyons, irises and native grasses. A spring flush of blooms on the manzanita has recently joined a still vibrant show of last year’s berries. For those just learning how to manage dry gardens, Goldstein recommends the manzanita cultivar ‘Howard McMinn’. “It will grow anywhere,” he says. “Shade, sun, wet, dry, slope, flat.”

As a screen along a driveway, he switched from natives to black bamboo (a plant with such invasive roots that he warns to use it only in contained concrete wells). This plant already grew in the tall, thick fashion required by the space and sat well with the faintly Pacific-Asian accent of the Craftsman beams. Because the bamboo borders a neighbor’s driveway, he thinned out the stalks, allowing light and air through and providing clear sightlines.

Hedges may be relaxed without descending into chaos. The Malibu hedge by garden designer Jay Griffith illustrates how a hedge can retain symmetry without going to a rectilinear extreme. Along a winding canyon road, he took the curving property line, created a small berm, then ran a row of Pacific Island trees -- the type that Maoris call Pohutukawa, that English settlers refer to as New Zealand Christmas trees and that botanists term Metrosideros. He then set agaves and the South African succulent Senecio mandraliscae in the foreground. Overhanging the line on either side are airy Italian stone pines.

All the plants are drought tolerant, with tough grace becoming the setting. The palette is blue-gray, and the textures vary from succulent ground cover (good for fire control) to needles. As a whole, it provides privacy for the homeowner, rugged beauty for the public, and an informality in keeping with the neighborhood’s countrified atmosphere.

The bigger the lot, the more potential for taking Californian hedges into the loose, woodsy forms made famous by the English with their rural hedgerows. For Griffith’s neighbor, painter and colorist Tina Beebe, the choice of hedging plant evolved as the circumstances around her garden changed. As a rule, hedges, or evergreen “bones,” go in a garden first, but when a neighbor paved the edge of an arroyo, making a natural stream look more like a storm drain, she decided “to put bones in after the fact.”

A rising terrace left a narrow space, but she still wanted a loose, natural form (and freedom from constant pruning), so she used a line of Arbutus unedo, the gnarly red-barked shrubs whose limbs have a unique amber glamour. Where the property line ascends into the Santa Monica Mountains and the path-side wall ends, she let the hedge relax into a kind of linear forest of native plants, mixing fremontodendron, ceanothus and a succession of unpruned coast live oaks. It feels like a country path through old California. Only viewed from above does it become clear that this copse of oaks is, in fact, a hedge.

Back in town, ficus are the rule. These lustrous hedges do so much to cool the city and conceal blight that their owners will take on town hall to defend them. Hedge height limits vary according to city government. Beverly Hills caps its hedges to 3 feet in front and 8 feet in back. (This may be that city’s most openly flouted law.) According to the Ordinance Desk in the Los Angeles city clerk’s office, L.A. limits front hedges to 6 feet and has no regulations for the rear.

In Santa Monica, yesterday marked the close of an almost 2-year-long ficus war. Owners of outsized-hedges -- including the governor’s brother-in-law, Bobby Shriver -- had better have applied for grandfather status for plants more than 12 feet tall at the rear of properties or phoned their tree trimmers. Shriver’s hedge was almost three times the new legal height. That may sound tall, but it’s not for a ficus.

The connection between water and size was obvious back in the day when more Americans farmed. It’s not any longer and merits explaining. The more the hedge is watered, the more its leaves photosynthesize, the more energy the leaves produce for the plant, the more the plant grows, the more it has to be pruned, the higher tax costs for green bin service.

A crying waste. However, it is, above all, the exchange of bird song for the 90-decibel whine of power tools that makes L.A.’s hedges so heartbreaking. Paradise awaits those who choose slower growing plants for hedges. Goldstein’s slow bays and manzanitas are such a draw to birds that he recently received a visit from Mickey Long, natural areas administrator of Los Angeles County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, who was interested in the potential of urban gardens to support native birds.

For birds, Long says, native hedges provide two functions: food and shelter. They eat berries and seeds, and as a reward to the gardener, in the spring they also start gleaning insects to feed to their young. When threatened, they can also hide in a hedge. “It’s a great place to dash if a sharp-shinned hawk, or a Cooper’s hawk, or for that matter a cat, appears,” he says. Prune a hedge too densely, however, and the growth becomes so tight, birds cannot easily move in and out of the foliage.

Though many birds prefer higher reaches of trees for nesting, a favorite winged creature, the hummingbird, not only often nests surprisingly low, but it also nests now. Spring starts in February in Southern California, and to protect these enchanting creatures, the best course of action is to stop pruning until August. This also protects the plants, according to Warren Roberts, superintendent of the UC Davis Arboretum. By that time, humidity diminishes along with the chance of infections festering in fresh cuts.

One would think that the crowding of plants in hedges would create a ripe breeding ground for all kinds of plant pathogens. However, according to Fred Roth, a plant pathologist at Cal Poly Pomona, hedges tend to be pretty healthy. Instead, Roth’s primary concern is aesthetic. “There is way too much thoughtless shearing done in Southern California landscapes, ruining the natural beauty and sometimes preventing flowering,” he says. Only those who hand-prune a boxwood will know that it blossoms every January, producing a perfume on par with a gardenia, orange or pittosporum.

If you have a healthy hedge, slowing the growth, then hand-pruning for more texture and dappled appearance makes more sense than ripping it out and starting over from scratch. Who wants to see the naked neighbor or the Chevy on cinderblocks again? Counterbalancing it with accent plants, as found in the Hasencamp, Goldstein and Griffith gardens, can also bring an old hedge new life. Consider dropping in a climbing rose, or a vine, whose blooms will spangle the green wall.

To introduce natives, the first move is probably not changing the existing woody plants, but instead removing lawn and boggy bedding, then shutting off the sprinklers. If a hedge is watered, then look for adaptable natives such as manzanita ‘Howard McMinn.’ Also consider that most hedges get more water than they need, and slowing it down reduces maintenance.

Goldstein says the key is “companion planting” -- choosing plants with like needs. For him, that is working with natives. Griffith used plants from four continents in the Malibu hedge, but three come from Mediterranean climates and the Metrosideros is so rugged, it might as well be from one too. Beebe and Horton also worked with the full Mediterranean palette rather than strictly with natives.

The function of hedges has changed, yet the way most of us think about them has not caught up. Once they were a transition to the wilderness. Now they are a stand-in for wilderness in an increasingly unforgiving city. Imagine the possibilities if we opened up our greenbelt to life, scent and color.


Emily Green can be reached at



A shrub for every shape

Here are recommendations from garden designers, horticulturists and others. Pruning note: When striving for even growth, shape the hedge so it is slightly wider at the base; this prevents the top from shading out the lower foliage.


California bay (Umbellularia californica): Tree with elliptical leaves that perfume the garden. Tolerates shade and water, grows a foot a year. Recommended by Hancock Park gardener Scott Goldstein.

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos densifolia ‘Howard McMinn’): Water- and shade-tolerant; pink spring blossoms; year-round fruit that attracts birds.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). Mickey Long, natural areas administrator for L.A. County Parks and Recreation, and Jeff Bohn, co-founder of Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, recommend this handsome evergreen. Summer white flowers, winter berries in red and yellow, excellent bird plant, takes trimming.

Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica): Long and Bohn also like this slow-growing, stout-leaved dark green shrub with slowly ripening berries. Tolerates shade, occasional water; excellent bird plant.

Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia): Evergreen coastal shrub, takes pruning, has no pests, fruit attractive to birds.

Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia). Serrated leaves distinguish this recommendation, from Warren Roberts, superintendent of the UC Davis Arboretum, from the more commonly used Carolina cherries. Both prunus species have creamy white winter flowers, bright red fruit. Mockingbirds like it.


Flowering and fruiting

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo): For large gardens in coastal climates, such as Tina Beebe’s in Malibu. Stout, round fecund evergreen trees with lustrous red bark, clusters of spring flowers and voluptuous red fruit. Bird plant.

Firethorn (Pyracantha) and Coto- neaster: The first is a thorny, drought tolerant evergreen; tolerates shade, aflame most of the year with orange berries. Many species with subtly changing shade of berries, mixed to good effect. Cotoneaster is an uncommonly graceful shrub with fountain-like habit. Gray-green foliage and luminous orange berries. Many species. Good for mixing in “tapestry” hedges.

Bottlebrush tree (Callistemon): Australian native takes pruning. Hummingbirds adore bright red flowers, other birds chew them. Long suggests looking for dwarf versions.

Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana): Shrub or small tree with gray-green leaves, spectacular red and white blossoms. (Eat them: They are better than the fruit that follows.) Once established, it’s drought-tolerant and can be used in Mediterranean gardens. Useful as accent plants or combined with clipped rosemary. Recommended by designers Horton and Edon Waycott.

Pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsus): Rugged shrub native to hills in the North Island of New Zealand and used by Jay Griffith in Malibu. Nectar is intoxicating to birds, passable honey flower, bright red flowers in late spring.


Green backdrops

Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis): Elegant, hardy hedge with herbaceous leaves good for cooking. Appropriate for Mediterranean gardens, takes moderate water. Recommended by garden designer Nancy Goslee Power.

‘Little Ollie’ olive tree (Olea europaea): Nearly fruitless shrub olive recommended by garden designer Judy Horton. Water-efficient, elegant, luminous, takes pruning.

Yew pine, fern pine: Dependable, elegant podocarpus comes in unusual species whose foliage is almost blue.”Looks tough as all get out,” says landscape architect Pamela Burton.

Carolina cherry (Prunus caroliniana): Native to southern and southwestern U.S. Evergreen, fragrant spring flowers, splays of long-lasting black berries. Attracts mockingbirds. Deep water monthly to get established, then water with soaker line once a month during high summer. Takes hard pruning.

Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens): Naturally slender, feather-shaped conifer. Rarely needs pruning, little or no extra water after it is established. Good for narrow spaces.

-- Emily Green