Sometimes called windbreaks, shelter belts, or conservation buffers, hedgerows are layers of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses that create living fences with the ability to grow food, shelter wildlife, conserve water, manage weeds, and look attractive year-round.
Originating in medieval Europe, the practice of planting hedgerows has been around for a long time! Early Europeans planted hawthorn cuttings and pruned them when they reached about six feet tall. The plants were bent and trained to fill in gaps between them, eventually creating a barrier. These were called “hagas,” or hedges, from the word “hawthorn.”
The Many Benefits of Hedgerows
- Greater ecological diversity
- Offer food for livestock, humans, and wildlife
- Habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators
- Facilitate water conservation and support the health of aquatic habitats
- Provide windbreaks
- Help manage invasive weeds
- Erosion control
- Create borders and privacy screens
- Enhance carbon sequestration
- Reduce noise
Although single species hedges have been more commonly used in modern times, interest in sustainability, habitat protection, and low-impact farming methods has helped bring about a resurgence in their popularity.
Most modern hedge material consists of dense rows of single-species shrubs, sheared into submission, and kept in an artificial form. These plantings are high-maintenance, susceptible to disease, and don’t offer much to area wildlife or insects.
Establishing & Maintaining Hedgerows
Standard landscape considerations such as site conditions, design aesthetics, and careful plant selection are necessary when planning a hedgerow.
Although a single line of trees or shrubs may provide privacy, four or more rows of plants are optimal for windbreaks, water and soil conservation, habitat, and general biodiversity. Plus, there will be fewer pest and disease issues!
A diverse selection of plant sizes and types is most beneficial. If space allows, plan for at least a six-foot wide planting area and place plants close together so they can grow into one another. Different types of plants have various growth rates and habits, so some areas will fill in faster than others and may need to be pruned to keep from overcrowding during establishment.
One challenge of establishing a hedgerow is keeping unwanted plants (weeds) from taking over the new plantings. In addition to hand or mechanical weed control, a 3-inch layer of mulch (or more leaves, straw, sawdust, woodchips, or even cardboard) will help with weed control and reduce moisture evaporation as well. As plants mature, they will eventually shade out most annual weeds.
Establishing a hedgerow is a long-term commitment—with proper planning and care, it will take approximately 4 to 8 years to reach maturity.
Multi-layered plantings provide maximum habitat. Avoid invasive plant choices and varieties that are susceptible to common pests and diseases. Plants should all have similar soil, water, sun, and drainage needs. A combination of evergreen and deciduous plants with a variety of flowering types will be most beneficial to birds, wildlife, and pollinators. A mixture of native and ornamental plants with both evergreen and deciduous qualities will provide the most utility and beauty over time. If privacy screening is part of your overall goal, use window sightlines to plan for taller evergreens in these areas.
Although there are many different plants that can be used to create a hedgerow, here are a few specific examples to get you started. Many of the plants below are native to the Pacific Northwest—consult the Portland Plant List for more regional plant suggestions.
Plant selection for upper canopy in sun (tallest plants 25+ feet tall): Bigleaf maple*, Grand fir*, Incense cedar*, Oregon ash*, Douglas fir*, Oregon white oak*, Western redcedar*
Plant selection for understory canopy in sun (under 25 feet tall): Strawberry tree, Ceanothus, Twig dogwood*, Hawthorn, Myrica*, Red-flowering currant*, Lilac, Ninebark*, Smoke tree, crepe myrtle, wild rose*, Douglas spirea*, Oceanspray*, flowering quince, forsythia, raspberries, Escallonia, Pyracantha
Understory plants for partial shade/shade (under 25 feet tall): Vine maple*, Flowering Dogwood, Serviceberry, Chokecherry*, Oregon grape*, Salal*, Twig dogwood*, Oceanspray*, Indian plum (Oemleria)*, Mock orange*, Western Yew*, Elderberry*, Evergreen huckleberry*, hardy fuchsia, native Honeysuckle vine*, Eleagnus, Snowberry*, Camellia, Yew, Mexican orange, Beautyberry, Box honeysuckle, Osmanthus burkwoodii
Border/edge plantings: Yarrow*, Kinnikinnick*, Sword fern*, Creeping Oregon grape*, Calendula, wild strawberry*, Salal*, Lavender and other herbs
*indicates native plant selections