Tough low hedges

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Low box hedge in the garden of Kerrie and Steve Babian in Sydney

Disheartened by this ongoing Sydney heatwave (will it ever end?), my spirits were lifted last week by a visit to a favourite garden in a nearby suburb, where well-established plantings were showing great resilience to the very trying conditions. In this garden, created by my friend Kerrie Babian, who has a fabulous eye for design, there are a number of excellent hedges of different heights used to create structure and privacy. On this occasion, I was especially drawn to the use of low hedges to delineate different areas of the garden and decorate them too.

Hedge of Lavandula dentata previously grown in the garden of Kerrie and Steve Babian in Sydney

It's intriguing how lining up a set of plants creates something more than the sum of the parts: providing a strong visual statement, helping to sculpt and define spaces in the garden, and giving a calm, uniform background to looser, less structural plants. Low hedges can also play these powerful roles in gardens, particularly those of a more compact size, where towering hedges look totally out of place. Some plants for low hedges lend themselves to tight clipping to create a formal, geometric look, whereas others have a naturally dense shape that creates a more organic-looking profile without much need for pruning. Other plant specimens can be treated in either way.

Hedge of Loropetalum chinense Pixie Purple in the garden of Kerrie and Steve Babian in Sydney

At the entrance to the garden, in front of a set of beautiful sandstone walls, a pair of hedges of a new dwarf form of burgundy-leaved Loropetalum chinense has been planted in recent times. The original species is a shrub that actually eventually achieves the proportions of a small tree, but this delightful form, 'Purple Pixie', grows only 30-50 cm tall and 1.2-1.5 m wide, with pink flowers in spring. It needs just occasional clipping to remove wayward stems. Previously, this area had been planted with low hedges of Lavandula dentata (pictured in previous paragraph), the so-called French lavender, which looked fantastic and which was the best choice for Sydney's humid climate, but lavender hedges do have a shelf life here, and they eventually became too woody and were removed.

There are forms of dwarf English box (Buxus sempervirens species) but in this garden, the naturally taller Japanese box (Buxus microphylla), which generally thrives in Sydney, is used and clipped to a low height (shown at the start of the blog). In the herb garden, it gives a crisp form amongst the surrounding plantings and forms a striking feature that looks great all year round.

Hedge of Salvia leucantha Santa Barbara in the garden of Kerrie and Steve Babian in Sydney

Atop a wall in the back garden, in front of a taller Murraya paniculata hedge is another very successful low hedge, this time using the short cultivar of Salvia leucantha known as 'Santa Barbara'. Unlike the species, which can become rather rangy and lax, 'Santa Barbara' sits up very nicely indeed, and grows to 60 cm tall, with the gorgeous purple flower spikes rising to about 90 cm in late summer and autumn. It is in bloom for a long time. Trimmed back lightly after flowering, then pruned hard at the end of winter, it regrows to a neat plant with slim, textured, grey-green leaves, and its naturally dense, rounded shape provides the contour of the hedge. It thrives very well in a hot, dry position - my own plant grows near my letterbox at the top of a battleaxe drive, and is never given any extra water.

Josie the dog surveys one of the Liriope hedges in the garden of Kerrie and Steve Babian in Sydney

In shaded parts of Kerrie's garden, a large form of Liriope is used to make a different sort of low hedge, along the tops of walls and dividing the entertaining area from the herb garden. Its grassy form gives a more fluid effect, and it is one of the toughest plants that anyone can put into their garden, enduring shade and drought without turning a hair (or should that be 'leaf'?). In this garden, it is cut back very hard in late winter every few years, and it regrows fresh new foliage. Other lower-growing Liriope varieties (and their cousins, the mondo grasses) can also be used in this way to define areas or to grow along an edge of a pathway, and there are a number with attractive variegated leaves. Even such clump-forming strappy-leaved perennials as Agapanthus and Tulbaghia violacea could be used in the same way.

Decorative foliage of Nandina domestica Nana in autumn

Another plant I have seen over the years in other gardens grown as a low hedge is the dwarf Nandina domestica 'Nana', which has a naturally compact form (ht 45 cm) and needs no clipping. Its dainty, vaguely bamboo-like leaves take on pretty red, orange and even purple tints in autumn, and because it doesn't lose its leaves, these remain decorative all through winter. The foliage colour is developed best when the plants are grown in a hot, dry spot. In spring, it has very attractive lime green new growth. It is another sturdy plant, which can put up with very hot, dry situations as well as shady spots.

Hedge of low form of Rhaphiolepsis indica in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

The low-growing forms of the Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica) are also good subjects for a dense hedge, with the added advantage of pretty pink or white flowers in spring. These are also resilient plants and will cope pretty well with dry conditions and heat once established. Another flowering shrub for a low hedge is Cuphea hyssopifolia, which has tiny leaves and petite, starry flowers of white or purple, growing only about 60 cm tall. I have seen it in a nearby garden clipped in a superb low circular hedge around a plinth. It will grow in sun or light shade. There is a gold-leaf form. Murraya paniculata 'Min-A-Min' grows to only 1 m tall, and could be a useful low hedge, with the added attraction of fragrant flowers and lush green leaves.

The Australian native known as coastal rosemary (Westringea fruticosa) is a good candidate for a low hedge, especially the new cultivar 'Grey Box', which grows 30-45 cm tall and as wide. Frost and drought tolerant, it can grow in sun or light shade, and can be clipped one to three times a year for a formal shape, or left unclipped for a looser look. It has dainty grey foliage and white flowers from spring until autumn. There are some low-growing lilly pillys around these days too, which could be useful hedges, such as Syzygium australe 'Tiny Trev', growing to 75 cm, with attractive shiny green leaves.

I'd love to hear of other plants being grown successfully as low hedges in Sydney, especially tough customers that can cope with what seems ominously to be the 'new normal' of our summer weather!

Reader Comments

  • By Barbara 2580 Monday, 16 January 2017

    I have an informal hedge of Mahonia aquifolium, the Oregon Grape, along my front fence. Growing to 1m high, it is evergreen and doesn"t turn a hair in either our cold, frosty winters, or our hot dry summers, and it"s always "going something". Late winter produces large sprays of small, yellow, highly perfumed flowers, which last for weeks. Then come large clumps of berries (barberries, I believe) which are a lovely blueish green .. contd.

  • By Barbara 2580 Monday, 16 January 2017

    The Mahonias" new spring growth, varies from plant to plant in colour from yellowish green, to blue green, although this may be because they were grown from seed. In late summer the berries gradually turn black with a blue bloom and hang on well into winter, unless the birds don"t devour them. Regardless of time of year, old leaves turn brilliant red before they fall. Tough as old boots, my plants survived our 8 year drought, with only an occasional bucket of washing water .. contd.

  • By Barbara 2580 Monday, 16 January 2017

    I"d seen mahonias growing in an old private garden, but have never seen them available in a nursery. The Aust National University gardeners were kind enough to grow them in one of the car parks, where I collected a handful of ripe berries. Easy to grow from seed, but they grow quite slowly, taking a couple of years to reach planting out size. Their only downside is the prickly leaves (hence the common name of Holly Leaf Mahonia), so it"s gloves and long sleeves when weeding. Thanks for all the information about this plant. I got one last year from the Collectors Plant Fair in Sydney and I love it! The fair is on again this year on 8 and 9 April at Clarendon, near Richmond NSW. Deirdre

  • By Peta 2758 Monday, 16 January 2017

    I enjoyed your blog Deidre because I"ll be taking up lawn under trees to make a "woodland walk" and would like to use low hedges. The challenge will be quite heavy Spring/Summer shade. The variegated Liriopes could work although I find that in cooler climes they die down in Winter. What do you think about that little Serissa, perhaps with a white flower? White shows up nicely in shade. All ideas welcome!Thanks, Peta. Your woodland walk sounds an exciting project. I have never grown Serissa but it might be a good possibility. Would arthropodium grow in your climate? It"s a lovely plant for shade with dainty white flowers in spring. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 16 January 2017

    In this dreary weather we are experiencing, your blog on low growing hedges revives interest and inspiration. I have been wracking my brain to think of some plants, for a particular area, and I think the Raphiolepis indica and the dwarf Loropetalum chinense will fit the bill admirably. Thanks, Margaret. Look forward to hearing how the new area goes. Deirdre

  • By Vicki 2069 Monday, 16 January 2017

    Thanks for the tip on cutting giant liriopes back hard... I was going to remove mine as they are looking very tired but will give them another chance! They are in a very uncared for driveway site which is a bit depressing at the moment! Will attack the day lilies as well! Thank you for the inspiration. Thanks, Vicki. Hope the cutting back will help. My daylilies look hideous at the moment so I will be cutting them back soon! Deirdre

  • By Penny 2550 Monday, 16 January 2017

    Liriope Royal Purple is looking amazing right now. I have it around a water feature and edging a garden bed. The abundant very dark purple flowers look spectacular and the foliage is very dark green. A beautiful plant that just needs a light trim in winter to bounce back. It gets comments from passers-by constantly. It sounds amazing, Penny. I do like liriopes very much. I am currently trying an all-golden one, which is pretty. Deirdre

  • By lillian 3951 Monday, 16 January 2017

    Apart from design, low hedges are functional on windy sites, like mine. Low trellis, some box cuttings and - presto- protection for other plants. For slightly higher wind breaks - you mentioned Westringia & lily pilly-Yes. S.corrugata is another good hedging Salvia. Coleonoma has the added benefit of scented foliage. Don"t forget the now many Pittosporum varieties. Around Melboune, and Gippsland where I live, I"ve seen clipped Camellia hedges. Quite remarkable when in bloom - but not for me! Thanks for your great suggestions, Lillian. Deirdre

  • By Barbara 2580 Monday, 16 January 2017

    Peta .. I have a "woodland" walk leading to my compost bins, heavily shaded by an enormous ash tree, the bare branches of which still give some protection from frost. I have a border of variegated liriope on one side. They don"t die down in winter, despite our intense cold but by, gosh, they grow slowly compared to the "common" green. I also have liriope muscari "Monroe White" in the same area. The dark green shiny leaves and pure white flowers are a real stand-out in the shade of summer. I do like that "Monroe White" one and it sounds like it could be a good one for Peta"s woodland walk! Deirdre

  • By Pam 2159 Monday, 16 January 2017

    I am not very fond of hedges. They look neat and add design features, but all too often have no flowers for the bees. I have some informal hedges of sasanqua camellias. There are some lower, slower growing sasanquas and hybrids such as "Paradise Petite" and "Little Miss". My favourite is the white "Silver Dollar". Your informal flowering hedges sound a delight, Pam. Deirdre

  • By Therese 2155 Wednesday, 18 January 2017

    Do readers know that the Secret Garden in the grounds of the Richmond campus of Western Sydney university is being relocated to a new site on the campus. A lot of work has been carried out to establish a new garden and in the years to come it will be a delight to visit. The sad thing is that the present garden will be destroyed. It is a delightful retreat from the rush and bustle of life and is enjoyed by so many people. What a loss to the community and to all garden lovers. Therese Thanks, Therese. I mentioned this in a blog on 21 August last year. It is sad to see the old garden go but it seems there is not any choice. I have seen the new site and I think it will be great. A lot of the plants from the original garden will be transplanted there. I will be visiting again there soon and will report back on how things are going. Deirdre

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