Planting hedgerows: a network for wildlife

Posted 11/29/23



Consider the hedgerow: a beautiful, sustainable, and low-maintenance alternative to monoculture hedges. 

Planted as living fences since the Neolithic Age, hedgerows …

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Planting hedgerows: a network for wildlife




Consider the hedgerow: a beautiful, sustainable, and low-maintenance alternative to monoculture hedges. 

Planted as living fences since the Neolithic Age, hedgerows are dense rows of diverse, woody vegetation. Farmers have used them for thousands of years to mark boundaries, create windbreaks, protect livestock, and control soil erosion.

For home gardeners, hedgerows create privacy buffers and screen unwanted views. They can help stabilize a slope, offer shade, and reduce noise. They can also help create a safe travel corridor to connect wildlife and pollinator habitat across Jefferson County. 

“The initial motivation is to put in a hedgerow for screening and privacy,” says Christina Pfeiffer, horticultural consultant, educator, and co-author with Mary Robson of Pacific Northwest Month-by-Month Gardening. “But hedgerows are also rich in habitat quality.” 

Diverse plant layers and species offer pollen, nectar, seeds, and fruits to birds, beneficial insects, and other wildlife. Dense foliage provides cover for nesting birds and winter shelter. 

Christina suggests starting by defining the space you have to work with. Hedgerows are typically longer than they are wide, but “you don’t need to plant a straight row. Think about it as looser and more natural. A mixed border planted in a staggered pattern can be effective, and less work over the long run.”

Decide whether you want an informal, semi-formal, or more defined hedgerow. Consider a variety of plant sizes and habits: fast and slow growers, evergreen and deciduous, plants that flower and fruit at different times of year. Include some that hold fruits into winter.

The natural hedgerow will have different microclimates – typically a shadier side and a sunny side – so it’s best to group plants with similar needs. 

The hedgerow should need minimal maintenance and pruning. “You can choose plants that won’t need constant attention,” says Christina. For a larger space, a combination of native mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) and vine maple (Acer circinatum) creates a stable habitat with little need for pruning. In a lowland setting, both can be expected to reach a height of 20-30 feet.

If a smaller size is called for, the warty barberry (Berberis verruculosa) has an arching growth habit and may reach 3-6 feet. Interplant with mid-sized native shrubs, perennials, or ferns. 

Other favorite hedgerow plants include the evergreen, drought-tolerant silk tassel (Garrya elliptica), native to coast ranges of southern Oregon and California. In her garden, Christina observes bushtits collecting the tassels for their nests. On a larger scale, it can be intermingled with taller trees. For a smaller site, prune as a semi-formal hedge. It tolerates dormant season renovation pruning – a good quality in the event it outgrows the space.

Christina suggests the native Pacific wax myrtle (Morella californica) as an alternative to a monoculture hedge like cherry or English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). A favorite of the cedar waxwing, it has finer foliage, tolerates sun or shade and damp or dry soil. It can be sheared like laurel, but has a looser, more upright growth habit.

For narrow spaces, consider columnar plants like Japanese plum-yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia), “Fine Line” buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula) with its fern-like foliage, or boxwood Buxus sempervirens ‘Graham Blandy.’ Columnar barberry and holly cultivars are other options. 

A food hedge, sometimes called a “fedge,” might include elderberry, currant, raspberry, high bush cranberry, and columnar fruit trees. For the understory, plant herbs such as comfrey and yarrow, and ground covers like clover or wintergreen.

In a more rustic space, a mixed hedgerow of native plants like snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) will form a lush thicket with beautiful flowers, berries, and rosehips. “They’re wonderful plants with so much habitat value,” adds Christina. In a smaller space, it could be challenging to manage their expected spread. 

It’s always beneficial to leave space for each plant to grow to its mature size. With mixed species, Christina advises, “space them so that when they mature, their branches are going to mingle, but not overcrowd each other.” 

Depending on your site, you can start fresh or adapt an existing hedge in stages. Remove some of the old plants and inter-plant with native evergreen and deciduous shrubs. To replace a mono-culture like laurel that can spread quickly and invade native woodlands, consider removing it completely before replanting, or replace it in sections. 

Christina advises that late fall is still a good time to plant during periods of moderate weather, when temperatures are above freezing and soil is not soggy. The warm, moist soil will help roots get established before the start of the next growing season.

For additional nesting and shelter in any hedgerow, add native ferns, perennials, ground covers, rock features, or snags. The informal, wild form is part of their charm, and key to their wildlife value. Even a small hedgerow can make a difference.

OSU Extension offers a free Guide to Hedgerows:

Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.