Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
December, 2010
Regional Report

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In this English garden, Leyland Cypress trees have been shaped into a small chapel in remembrance of the structure that once stood there.

Keep Hedges From Running Amok

Ever seen a garden hedge that has run amok and thought, "What in the world were they thinking?" In my neck of the woods, it's usually Leyland Cypress (x Cupressocyparis leylandii), planted as privacy screen, that is the culprit.

When young, the Leyland will shoot up three to four feet each year, even in poor soil. At maturity, it stands fifty to sixty-feet tall and spreads as many as fifteen-feet wide, making it far too big for most home landscapes.

Because of its ability to quickly transform sunny spaces into deep, gloomy shade, Leyland Cypress has been the source of many disputes between gardeners and neighboring homeowners. In England, legislation now allows local authorities to reduce the height of problematic hedges.

On trips across the pond, I've seen many examples of Leyland Cypress pruned into neat hedges. In one garden I visited, The Priory in Kington St. Michael, Wiltshire, the evergreens were shaped so windows and doors were formed within the hedge, as a reminder of a small chapel that once stood there.

However, few gardeners in the Middle South realize that these trees can be restrained with pruning. Dr. Mike Dirr, noted expert on woody plants, says Leyland Cypress should be restrained at an early age before restraining becomes impossible. Nevertheless, the trees are surprisingly tolerant of severe pruning.

In general, a healthy but overgrown Leyland can endure a reduction of one-third of its height. Plan the work for March or April, just as the new growing season is about to begin. It is always wise to prune conservatively, though, as taking too much from the top can result in a bare, flat-topped hedge, or result in the death of older or less vigorous plants. If a reduction in width is also required, do not cut into older leafless growth, as new growth will not grow from bare wood.

For newly planted, young hedges, trim overlong shoots at the start of the growing season and again in late July. In the second year and subsequent years, continue to trim the sides to encourage denser growth, leaving the leading shoots untouched. Once the desired height of the hedge is reached, shorten the leading shoots by six inches and the top will begin to fill in.

Keep the hedge trimmed to an inverted wedge shape (a flat-topped A) with the widest point at the base. As they mature, Leyland Cypress hedges may require pruning three times a year during the growing season.

Want a simpler solution? Instead of planting Leyland Cypress or other towering evergreens, consider a hedge of lower-growing plants. Two options include Emerald Green arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis 'Smaragd' ) and Mary Nell holly (Ilex x 'Mary Nell').

Better yet, plan a mixed hedge rather than one made with a single type of plant. Mixed hedges allow for the judicious selection of plants based on their size, shape, color, texture, and season of interest. This type of hedge will not only provide privacy, but it can also enhance the garden's overall design.

A mixed hedge can also be contrived to conceal or reveal views beyond the garden, and are less susceptible to insect and disease problems. And if a plant in the hedge dies, the variety of shapes and sizes allows it to be replaced without compromising the composition.

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