The Vital First Year for Your Hedge

So you planted a hedge last fall, you have just planted one in the last few weeks, or you are about to do it very soon. Congratulations – hopefully you chose something tough and fast-growing, like Thuja Green Giant, or in colder areas, Emerald Green Arborvitae. In very hot, dry areas you perhaps went with Italian Cypress, but whatever you chose, what happens in the first year after planting will set things up for the rest of your hedge’s life. Let’s see what you can do – nothing complex you can be sure – that will give your valuable new hedge the best start in life.

Prepare the Soil Well

If you have already planted your hedge, then this may be advice too late, but if not, then three things are important:

  • Dig Deeply – try to prepare the soil as deeply as possible. Try to go down 12 inches, mixing the soil, and adding suitable materials. For a single tree, prepare an area at least 3 feet across, or a line 3 feet wide for planting a hedge row. If you use a roto tiller, these machines can fool you into thinking you have done a great job, while in fact they just went over the surface. Go over two or three times, working the machine slowly, and letting it sink into the ground as far as it will go.
  • Add Organic Material – it doesn’t matter much what kind, just as long as you add it. A layer 2 to 4 inches deep is usually best, and garden compost, rotted farm manure, rotted leaves, even lawn clippings and fresh weeds, are all good materials to incorporate into the soil. These increase the water-holding capacity of light soils, increase the drainage and air content of heavy ones, and add nutrients and valuable microbes too.
  • Add Phosphates – this nutrient, needed for root growth, doesn’t move into the soil from the surface for many years, so it must be dug in to be effective. Sprinkling it on top after you plant is completely ineffective. You can use bone meal, superphosphate, or triple superphosphate, it really doesn’t matter, so consider cost. Sprinkle a layer over the soil before you add the organic material. You can’t damage your plants if you use too much, and a solid dusting is about right, so that it is clearly visible.

Water Regularly

This is so important, and basic, that it cannot be over-emphasized. New plants only have the soil that was in the pot to depend on, and in warm weather, or when growing vigorously, they soon use that up. It takes some time for roots to move out of this limited space and explore the surrounding soil. So when watering your new hedge, don’t use a spray and water the top only. Use a gently rain head, or a slow-running tap, and soak down close to the stem of each plant, letting the water run deeply down. This will keep your plants happy. You do also need to keep the surrounding soil moist, to tempt the roots to spread out, and this is why many smart gardeners put a ‘leaky pipe’ watering hose – the black, porous kind – down along their hedge. Weave it in and out of the stems, and let it run for a few hours, until the whole area is thoroughly watered. It does a great job, and also saves you the trouble of standing their watering.

Fertilize with Liquid Fertilizers

Feeding hedges is important. Like lawns they get clipped regularly, so foliage is lost, and it has to be replaced. This means more nutrients are used than by an untrimmed plant. Granular fertilizers are the easiest to use, and the most cost-effective, but young plants don’t have big root systems, so they can’t easily access the nutrients from these materials, which need time to migrate down into the soil. Far more effective is a liquid fertilizer, that carries the nutrients right down to the roots with the water. Choose something designed for evergreens, which will have lots of nitrogen to stimulate rapid growth. These fertilizers come as concentrated liquids – the easiest to use – or as a powder – the most economical. The only issue is that because they are dissolved in water, they cannot be very strong, so you need to re-feed every 2 weeks to a month. But for the first year they really make a noticeable difference in the growth rate and foliage density of your new plants, making them sturdy and strong. Stop feeding in early fall, to allow your trees to slow down and toughen up for the coming colder weather.

Start Trimming When Your Start Growing

When creating a hedge, we want a dense, twiggy structure, with lots of tight branching, to give you the solid structure that makes the most private hedge, the best looking one, and the one that resists winter breakage too. The single biggest mistake when people plant new hedges is to let it grow until it reaches the height you want, and then start trimming. This never gives the best structure. Far better is to trim lightly and regularly from day one. As soon as you see new growth, snip off the end inch of it. This will encourage the dense branching you want. It will also allow you to direct the growth upwards, not outwards, so that you have a slip hedge. Don’t forget to keep the upper part narrow, to encourage plenty of growth lower down. Once it gets going, trim very lightly once a month from spring to mid-fall.

Try to keep the front flat, but sloping slightly inwards, and the top horizontal – you might need some strings and a level to get started. Don’t trim at the very end of the season, especially in colder areas, as soft, young growth can suffer winter damage. In the end you won’t reduce the rate of growth significantly, as your new hedge works its way up to your target height, but you will have a great hedge as a reward for that bit of extra work.

How Hardy is Thuja Green Giant?

This might seem like a very easy question to answer – just check the hardiness zone listed for it, put your zip code into the USDA map site, and there is the answer – right? Most sources list zone 5 as the coldest place to grow Thuja Green Giant, which means it is considered hardy to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately minus 30 on the Centigrade scale, for all you scientifically-inclined gardeners – odd isn’t it, that we use metric money, but then use an ancient European temperature scale everyone else abandoned many, many years ago?). So that should settle the matter, and there is nothing else to talk about. . .

What About Wind Chill?

At this point someone is going to say that we have forgotten wind chill, that factor that separates two days at the same temperature into ‘tolerable’ and ‘brutal’ because of a howling northerly wind. Wind Chill certainly affects us, but not plants. Why? Because wind chill is a measure of how rapidly heat is drawn away from our bodies, something which happens because we are warm-blooded. Plants, on the other hand, are not, and their internal temperatures are basically the same as the surrounding atmosphere or soil. Apart from a few plants that grow so fast in spring – mostly bulbs – that they actually generate enough heat to melt their way through the snow, all plants are at the same temperature as the air, so Wind Chill is irrelevant to them.

Winter Burn

Wind does affect plants though, and it adds complications to just how hardy a plant can be. The usual advice given to gardeners about growing plants at the limits of their hardiness is to find a ‘sheltered spot’ in the garden for them. This usually means south-facing and protected by hardier plants from cold northern winds. This advice is of limited value, because what evergreens need protection from in winter is dry winds – whatever their temperature and direction. You may have seen the leaves plants in summer shrivel and burn in hot, drying winds, but although direct sun may play a part, it is the dryness of wind that matters. We may feel a hot summer wind as dry or damp, but in winter all winds are relatively dry.

This is because the amount of water the air can hold increases with temperature. Yes, many people don’t realize that a cold winter wind is much, much drier than a balmy summer breeze. For example, at 100 degrees Fahrenheit the air can carry over 50 grams of water in a cubic meter. At 50 degrees that falls to less than 10, and at 32 degrees less than 5. By the time we reach minus 20, the hardiness limit for Thuja Green Giant, it holds just 1 gram of water. Larger amounts turn into dew, mist, fog or rain. Winter air is very, very dry.

How does this effect plants? Water is constantly being lost from the leaves and foliage of plants, by a process called transpiration. That water must be replaced from the roots, and when the ground freezes that cannot happen. So over time the foliage loses more water than it can replace, leading to drying, and the effect we call ‘winter burn’. In evergreens, this is the primary factor controlling hardiness. The other is the ability of roots to resist cold. Since soil is much warmer than the air, roots have much less cold-resistance than stems and branches. This is why plants left in pots outdoors die in winter, but the same plant in the ground will survive perfectly well.

What Does this Mean for Thuja Green Giant?

What all this means in the end is that if you can either increase the ability of the roots to take up more water, and/or reduce the amount of water lost from the leaves, then Thuja Green Giant can resist lower temperatures than usually suggested. Also, if you neglect these factors, it can easily die, even in zone 5. This is true for all plants, but especially for evergreens, which are vulnerable, because they carry their leaves into winter. From a practical point of view, this weakness is going to be worse in younger plants, so if you can keep your plants growing until they reach a good size, they are much more likely to survive in the long-term. So how about some tips for doing that?

Protecting Thuja Green Giant from Winter Cold

There are three ways to protect Thuja Green Giant, and other evergreens, from cold winter temperatures, especially when they are young.

Encourage Deep Root Growth

Deeper soil is warmer and doesn’t freeze. (How deep your soil freezes depends on where you live, of course.) The deeper the roots of your trees go, the more water they can continue to reach in winter, and the less their risk of winter burn. When you prepare the soil for planting, try to dig it as deeply as possible, so that the roots have plenty of soil to grow down into.

Water Your Trees in Late Fall

This is a very effective way to protect against winter damage. Let a hose run gently for several hours over the root zone of your trees, so that the soil is thoroughly wet. Do this as close to freeze-up as you can. Increasing the water content of the soil around the roots does two things. Obviously, it puts more water near the roots, so they can take up plenty. More subtly, it increases the specific heat of the soil, so it takes more winter cold to make it freeze. Specific heat is the amount of energy needed to change the temperature of something. It takes five times as much heat to warm wet soil as against dry soil. so that when the cold penetrates, we can think of it as being ‘used up’ in the top few inches, instead of freezing down a foot or two. The deeper roots can still get at liquid water and keep the foliage moist.

Mulch your trees

Besides its other properties, mulch is a good insulator. Soil covered with mulch, especially plant-based mulches, not stones, will freeze much less, and often not at all. Once you have completed that late-season watering, mulch around your trees too.

Use Anti-desiccant Spray

Widely used by professionals, but neglected by home gardeners, these products, which are entirely natural and made from an extract of pine trees, cover the foliage with a protective coating that reduces dramatically the rate of water loss. They have an equally dramatic effect on survival, especially helpful with new planting, and reduce or often eliminate winter burn, even on vulnerable plants at the limits of their hardiness.

So How Hardy is Thuja Green Giant?

You can see the picture is complex. The bottom line is that if you help your young trees in the ways suggested here, their survival is going to be greatly improved. In zone 5, and even into zone 4, your trees will leave winter as healthy as they entered it, and you can push the hardiness significantly – this is indeed a tough plant.

Start Up Your Hedge for Spring

After a hard winter, it time to get out and explore the garden, to see how it survived, and if anything is needed. For hedges in particular, winter can be tough, especially if there has been heavy snow, freezing rain, or storms. As well, there are things to do that will give you the best results in the coming growing season, so let’s look at some things you can do that will fire up your hedge for a great season of growth and development. These things are especially important if you planted a hedge last year, in spring or in fall.

Check for Broken Branches

The weight of snow, ice, or simply strong winds can all break branches, especially on older hedges that have perhaps not been trimmed correctly. They may not always be obvious, although of course sometimes they are all too obvious!  The main issue when removing broken branches from evergreens is that most conifer evergreens, like Thuja Green Giant, Emerald Green Arborvitae, Cypress, and others similar plants, is that they cannot regenerate from old wood. That is, branches that don’t have some green shoots on them. So hopefully leaving a thick branch, thinking it will re-sprout, as most trees do, is never going to work. If a breakage has happened below the green parts of the tree, then remove it neatly right back to the main limb it is growing from.

When cutting, leave the collar of bark you will see just where the branch joins on – don’t cut flush. The cut will be bigger with a flush-cut, and take longer to grow bark over, but more importantly, it is likely to cause die-back into the stem and leave permanent damage and weakness. This, by the way, applies to all limb removal from every kind of tree or shrub.

When you have cut away all the damaged parts you can assess your hedge. If you trimmed from an early age you should have lots of branches surrounding the gaping hole where that limb came out, and you will be surprised how quickly even large holes fill in. Smaller gaps will be gone in half a season, larger ones might take two seasons, but go they will.

If however the damage is to the end of a hedge – perhaps a snow-plough ran into it, for example – it is much harder to repair, and there it makes much more sense to take out the last tree entirely, dig the area well, and plant a good-sized replacement.

Mulch Your Hedge

If your hedge is young, or old and showing yellowing and slow growth, then mulch is very beneficial. Use something rich and nutritious, like garden compost or rotted animal manures (cow, sheep or horse) rather than bark chips or shredded bark. Yes, those hard materials last a long time, and they do conserve water and suppress weeds, but they don’t supply any nutrients. Richer organic materials release lots of nutrients as they break down, and for an older hedge they really will rejuvenate it over a few months. For young hedges too, the benefits are terrific, with better soil properties, more beneficial microbial activity in your soil, and nutrients too.

When mulching, keep the material clear of the stems, and don’t bury the foliage either, as it will soon die and brown if it isn’t exposed to light. A layer 2 to 4 inches deep in about right. You don’t need to remove all the old leaves and clippings which often accumulate under hedges, as they will also break down once you had some rich compost.

Fertilize Your Hedge

By far the most important thing to do in spring, especially for a young hedge, is to fertilize it. You can find both older-style chemical fertilizers, and organic-style ones too, and organic ones are especially useful for poorer soils, and of course they don’t involve energy-intensive manufacturing from fossil fuels either. To the plant it makes no difference – by the time they are ready to be absorbed by the roots they have been turned into basic elemental forms – plants don’t absorb vitamins or other complex molecules, since they make them all themselves.

There are three main kinds of fertilizers suitable for hedges – liquid fertilizer, granular fertilizers, and slow-release fertilizers. All three have their uses. Immediately after planting, and for the first season, you will get the best results using liquid fertilizers. These are sold either as concentrated liquids, or powders. Powders are much more economical, and easy to use – just dissolve the recommended amount in water. Young plants have limited root systems, and liquid fertilizers flow right down into the root ball, so they are easily and quickly absorbed, but they need regular application – once a month or even once every two weeks – for best results, as they cannot be concentrated, or the roots will burn.

In the longer term applying liquid fertilizers takes too much time, so after the first season or two, switch to granular forms. These are also more economical. The ordinary types are applied in early spring, mid-summer and early fall. Follow the directions for the amount to apply. Slow-release forms, which look like tiny pebbles, are more expensive, but they only need to be put down once a year. Choose which to use depending on your budget and how much time you have available. Fertilizer in sticks which you drive into the ground is usually not ideal, as it may burn the roots near it, and not spread well to areas further away, producing uneven growth.

Formulations

The fertilizer market is crowded, with many brands all competing for our attention. Forget all that, and instead go straight to the fertilizer formula – the 3 numbers (20-20-20, for example) required by law to be somewhere on the box or bag. If the first number is noticeably bigger than the next two, then that will be fine for a hedge. Even lawn food works on a hedge, although it is not ideal, since it has too much nitrogen (the first number) and not enough of the other nutrients. You want something balanced, but with more nitrogen than anything else. Other nutrients are optional extras, unless you have very sandy soil, where micronutrients can be scarce. If you mulch with that rich organic material we mentioned, then all you need is the nitrogen boost for rapid growth, so don’t worry about the fancy stuff. Check out our blog pages for more detailed blogs on fertilizing hedges.

Watering

In some areas early spring can be dry, with little rain. If that is happening, don’t forget to water your hedge deeply, especially a young hedge. A lot of the annual growth takes place in spring and early summer, and dryness will seriously reduce that, so don’t forget to water.

Five Reasons Thuja Green Giant Should Be Your Top Choice

Deciding on the trees to use for screens and hedges is a big decision. Not only are these features going to set the form of your garden, and give you the privacy and protection you need, you will make a significant investment in them, so you want to get it right. Let’s look at why choosing Thuja Green Giant is going to be the right choice for almost all situations.

Why Choose Thuja Green Giant

  • For Fast Growth – 3, 4, or even 5 feet a year in the early years
  • For Year-round Green – stays green and healthy-looking all winter long
  • For Health and Vigor – its hybrid nature ensures super-vigorous and healthy growth
  • For Adaptability – grows well in many different soils and hardiness zones  
  • For Easy Care – trouble-free, and after establishment takes care of itself

Choose Thuja Green Giant Because It Grows So Fast

The rapid growth of Thuja Green Giant, especially when young, has been proven in independent University trials. It grows faster than any other hedging evergreen we know off, adding up to 4 feet a year in the early years. Usually it will grow less the first summer after you plant it, although if planted in spring and cared for it will often be well established by the first fall. It is in the 3 or 4 years following that period of establishment is when you will the fastest growth, with your plants adding 3 or 4, or in exceptional circumstances even 5 feet a year.

This means that in those first few years, when you are anxious for the promise of privacy and screening to actually happen, Thuja Green Giant delivers. By the time you have had your trees in the ground for five years you can realistically expect them to add 10 feet or more to the height they were when you planted them. After that, growth with slow down, and adding two feet a year, and later just one, is normal. This is great, because by then your plants will be the size you want them, and slower growth means less trimming is needed.

Speaking of trimming, for screening you don’t even need to do it, although an occasional shaping helps keep your trees extra neat. Unlike many other fast-growing plants, Thuja Green Giant doesn’t begin to fall apart in a few years. Instead, it stays dense and tight, resisting wind, snow and storms, and always looking great.

Choose Thuja Green Giant because it is always Green

A common issue with a lot of evergreen hedges is discoloration in winter. A hedge should be fresh and green, but a lot of the plants used can and do turn bronzy-brown in winter, once some serious cold arrives. Yes, they do green up again in spring, but it does mean that they look dull and even unsightly in the winter months. At that time we want to see something green, to keep our hopes up for the coming spring. This is where Thuja Green Giant stands out from the others. It really does live up to its name, and your plants stay green and lush throughout the coldest parts of the winter. We don’t know about the ‘Jolly’ part, but the ‘Green’ part is certainly true!

Choose Thuja Green Giant for Health and Vigor

The last thing we want in our gardens is problems with hedges. They are meant to stay in the background, look good, and need limited attention. This is not always the case with some of the plants used. For example, older plantings of Leyland Cypress have been attacked by diseases in some areas, and other evergreens can also suddenly decide to start dying. Thuja Green Giant became so popular so quickly precisely because it stays healthy, and it keeps growing vigorously in many different locations and soils. It grows well in all kinds of soil, from sandy soils to clay soils, and in everything in between. It doesn’t like to be growing in soil that is constantly wet, but even then, if you plant your hedge or screen on a raised ridge of soil, up to 12 inches above the surrounding soil level, it will grow well in difficult, wet sites too.

It is also remarkably pest and disease resistant, because it is a hybrid plant, and plant breeders have known for years that when we cross two different species or forms that are related, the resulting plant is tougher and more vigorous than either of its parents. They call this ‘hybrid vigor’, and Thuja Green Giant has it in spades.

Choose Thuja Green Giant for Adaption to Different Locations

When planting hedges and screens, we don’t want plants that are choosy about where they live. With Thuja Green Giant we don’t have those problems. It is hardy all the way from zone 5 to 8, and even into zone 9 in drier climates. You might live in the rainy north-west; the hot and humid south- east; the colder north-east; or all across the open mid-west. It really doesn’t matter to this tree, because it is vigorous and adaptable enough to thrive almost everywhere. North America has an enormous range of climates, but growers in almost all of them tell us that Thuja Green Giant is thriving there. Even in coastal areas this is one of the best choices for everywhere short of right on the beach, because it is more salt-resistant than other arborvitae (Thuja) trees are. So no matter where you garden, you can be pretty sure that this is the best plant to choose.

Choose Thuja Green Giant for Easy Care

Finally, we don’t want to be fussy about our hedges, and they should not need a lot of regular attention. Thuja Green Giant doesn’t. It is of course best to give it some TLC in the first year or two, paying attention to watering it regularly, planting it into well-prepared soil, and using fertilizer to maximize the growth during those critical early years. Regular trimming right from the beginning is recommended too, for a hedge, as that builds a strong internal structure that will keep it healthy and lush right to the ground for life. But after that small push in the early stages, Thuja Green Giant, like children we have raised successfully, can stand on their own feet from then on, and really only need to be trimmed once or twice a year, depending on how neat or natural you want your planting to screening to be. You can see from all this, that for all the right reasons, choosing Thuja Green Giant is the right choice for almost every garden, almost everywhere.

Take Care of your Evergreens Under the Ground

It is the green parts of plants that we see, and beneath the ground is often ignored. But for trees, that area is so important, as vital activities happen there. Successful growing should emphasize what we do with the root system, and if we do that, the upper parts will usually take care of themselves. Let’s see what we should be doing to care for the roots of our evergreens, to give us the fast and healthy growth we want to see.

Give them Room

We are (hopefully) going to consider how much room above ground our plants need. For example, Thuja Green Giant has a spread of as much as 12 feet, so it should not be planted closer than 6 feet away from walls, fences, property boundaries and foundations. Its root system takes up even more room, and although it will adapt to obstructions, growing around or underneath them, you cannot grow a full-sized tree in a very small volume of soil. So when planting around buildings, or between construction features like driveways and garden walls, consider if you have enough room. As well as your plant suffering, your construction can too, as large plants too close to retaining walls can weaken them and cause their collapse, and planting right alongside a walkway or drive can result in cracks and lifting developing in a short time.

For the best growth of your trees, creating a large volume of soil is essential, as often the ground is too hard for them to easily penetrate. This is especially true in newer properties, as heavy construction machinery will have been driven over the site, making the soil hard and unyielding. This problem is called ‘compaction’. Soil where you are planning to grow Thuja Green Giant, or other trees, should be dug or roto-tilled to loosen the soil. For a hedge a section at least 3 feet wide, and preferably wider, up to 6 feet, should be dug or tilled to a depth of 12 inches, or as deep as you can go.  For individual plants, an area at least 3 feet in diameter should be prepared. This will separate the pieces, and even if your soil is poor, it will make it much easier for your young trees to spread out and down, finding water and nutrients over a large area, and so growing stronger and healthier. This is far better than planting into a small hole in hard soil, and then finding you have to water all the time and fertilize too, to keep your plants growing. The extra work of good soil preparation will be re-payed many times over with great growth and good health.

Enrich the Soil

No matter what type of soil you have, adding organic materials to it will improve it. In sandy soils, it helps retain moisture and provide nutrients, and in clay soils it improved drainage and air penetration into the soil. Suitable materials include garden compost; well-rotted animal manures like cow, sheep or horse; rotted leaves; spend mushroom compost; peat moss; or almost any other well-rotted organic material. Do not use woody material (such as wood chips) as these things rob the soil of nutrients as they decompose, and only years into the future do they feed your plants. Usually a layer 2 to 4 inches deep over the area is sufficient. Spread it over the surface and dig it in. If you are using a tiller, run over the area once, spread your organic material, and then till one or two more times. Mixed into the soil it will hold water for the roots, and as it rots down it creates drainage, and releases nutrients too.

Once you have finished planting and watering, then spread another layer 2 or 3 inches deep over the dug area. Keep it away from the stems of your trees, and don’t cover the low foliage close to the ground. This layer will act as mulch, conserving moisture. It will also prevent the growth of weeds, as these should not be allowed to grow up around your plants, especially when they are still young. As well, mulch of this kind, rather than bark chips or stones, will feed your plants too, as it rots down into the ground. Mulch should be renewed in spring for a couple of years at least after planting, and if your soil is very sandy, mulching each year is recommended. In richer soils it is not so necessary, and it may only need replacing every two or three years.

Water Regularly

The soil is where your plants get water from, and even if your plants look healthy and green in dry soil, they are not growing. So watering is often necessary, especially when plants are young, and especially in sandy soils, and in hot places. New plants should be watered at least weekly during dry weather, even in the temperatures are not so high. Remember that newly-planted trees depend for a while on the root ball that was inside the pot, until they spread their roots outwards. So even if the soil looks damp, that root ball may have already dried out. Use a slow-running hose to trickle water down around the roots, rather than standing with a spray nozzle and squirting water about. Most of that will be wasted and simply evaporate into the air. This watering during the establishment phase is vital for your plants to get off to a flying start and put on lots of new growth for you.

In the longer term, putting in a trickle line will make watering easy. This can be connected to your irrigation system is you have one, or connected directly to a tap with a timer so that it comes on automatically, meaning less work for you.

Fertilize your Plants

New plants can take several years to develop an extensive root system. Without that they may not be able to access enough nutrients for maximum growth, even if you have enriched the soil. Today chemical and natural sources of fertilizer are available, so you can use which ever kind you prefer. The important thing for growing evergreens is that there is enough nitrogen in them for growing all those green shoots, especially if you are clipping, which removes the growth which then must be replaced. Look for fertilizers with a high first number in that set of three – it is the level of nitrogen. It should be close to 10 in a natural fertilizer, and close to 20 in a chemical one.

The simplest approach is to choose a blended fertilizer designed by experts for evergreens. Apply this a week after planting, unless you are planting in late fall or winter. If you are, wait until spring to fertilize, and in sandy soil or in the early years, a second feeding in mid-summer and another in early fall is beneficial, especially in warmer zones. In colder areas a spring and summer feeding should be enough.

With these steps – dig and enrich the soil, water regularly, and fertilize – you will see the best growth possible. It pays to focus on the ground if you want the best results in the air.

Thuja Green Giant and Mixed Privacy Screens

Thuja Green Giant is a fantastic, fast-growing evergreen, but when we look at how it is planted in most gardens, there does seem to be a lack of imagination. The nation is covered in straight rows of this tree, standing alone in a neatly-mowed lawn, and I hate to say this, guys, (because it is mainly guys that seem to like this row of soldiers) but there is so much more that can be done. I know that your goal is to mark the boundary of your property, and probably also to block an unsightly view, bring privacy to your garden, or perhaps to reduce wind and snow drift in winter storms. Well the good news is that you can do all those things – and more – with something more imaginative than a blank wall of green.

Clipped hedges I get and have always loved. The geometry itself becomes a garden feature, especially when used as a backdrop to shrub beds. But if you are aiming for low-maintenance, without trimming, then with a little more thought so very much more can be achieved. What I am talking about is planting among and around those Green Giants with other plants and building a more natural-looking privacy screen.

Avoid Straight-line Planting

Sometimes, when space is limited, we need to keep everything in a row to fit it in, but if you have room, consider a different approach. Let’s say you have 100 feet to screen, and very smartly want to use Thuja Green Giant. Typical single-row spacing is between 5 and 10 feet apart, depending on how dense you want it, and how soon you want it to become solid. Now if instead of seeing this as a 100-foot-long straight line, what if instead we see it as also 15 feet wide. Now, instead of a neat row, with everything spaced evenly, we were to take our trees and plant them in groups of 2, 3, or 5 trees, allowing about 6 feet between each plant, diagonally to the row, or in triangles. Space these clusters about 15 feet apart, and now you have a more naturalistic planting, with interesting groups of plants overlapping and creating a much more exciting skyline.

If you have even more width available, you can create overlapping diagonals with rows of these scattered clusters, so that you avoid gaps between them, yet also avoid that straight row effect. But a better approach to that gap is . . .

Add Other Trees to the Row

Now we start to have some fun. If you create those clusters, and perhaps put them further apart – maybe 20 feet – then you give yourself the chance to make your screen even more interesting. Into those gaps you can plant something completely different. Consider the purpose of your screening. Is all-year-round privacy vital, or do you need it mostly in summer? If it’s an issue for summer only, then why not add some deciduous trees? The exact choices will depend on where you live, but these could be trees with fall color, like maple or oak, or flowering trees, like cherry or deciduous magnolia. Smaller trees, like Birch, as top choices for this, and birch is also fast growing, so they won’t get left behind. More upright trees, like the Tulip Tree (or Tulip Poplar) fit well too, and they will never have branches spreading into the evergreens. If the area you are planting is exposed, then tuck those flowering trees closer to the evergreens, on the south side of them, while still putting them partially into the spaces. Crape Myrtles are a great choice too – some become tall, and all are fast-growing and incredibly colorful. Like the Thuja they are drought resistant and do well out in the open.

Alternatively, you can use evergreens. These could be other conifers – perhaps with contrasting foliage color, such as some of the blue spruce, like Baby Blue, or the hardy Colorado White Fir, or beautiful Blue Spanish Fir. Alternatively, holly is a great screening plant, and there are a host to choose from. Pick something upright, with a good berry crop, like the classic ‘Nelly Stevens’, or the fiery ‘Dragon Lady’. If you are in zone 5, choose a hardier hybrid, like ‘Castle Wall’, or ‘Castle Spire’. Once you start thinking in terms of variety, instead of sameness, then many options open up. Remember to match your choices to your growing zone, and choose plants that will grow large fairly quickly, or they will be lost among those big Green Giants. Other evergreen options might include Cherry Laurel, which besides its big green leaves contrasting with the fine Thuja Green Giant foliage, has attractive flowers too. In warmer areas the Wax Myrtle is a lovely upright evergreen, with small glossy leaves, and it’s tough too.

What About Some Shrubs?

So far we have been looking at taller plants, to form the backbone of this mixed screening, but there are also the sides, if you have room. On one or both sides there is an opportunity to add flowering, different plant forms, and fruit for wildlife. In open, treeless areas in particular, screens are valuable refuges for birds and smaller wild-life, providing shelter from storms and sun, nesting sites, and also food. Planting berry shrubs, like Pyracantha or Barberry makes sense. To add greater density, those Cherry Laurels already mentioned are great, and along the sides you can use smaller forms like ‘Otto Luyken’. For early spring flowering, you can’t go wrong with the tough, golden-yellow Forsythia. Why not add some fragrance, with some lilac bushes – perhaps something compact like ‘Miss Kim’, or the remarkable Bloomerang Purple Lilac, which has a second flowering. Don’t plant just one shrub, but instead create drifts, using several, and spacing them apart about 2/3-rds of their mature width. In other words, shrubs that become 6 feet wide would be planted about 4 feet apart.

Let Your Imagination Loose

By now you have will have got the idea of this. Think of clusters of reliable and fast Thuja Green Giant, mixed with taller trees – broad-leaf evergreens, plus flowering or deciduous ones, and colorful conifer evergreens too – that will add variety and interest. Then edge it on one or both sides with drifts of shrubs. Think of interest at different seasons – fall color, berries, spring or summer flowers – you get the idea. Instead of the rigid line of ‘all the same’, you can create a colorful and interesting picture, and still achieve the screening you are looking for.

Fix Hedges Damaged by Winter Storms

As record cold sweeps much of the country, and white-out storms engulf highways, towns and of course our gardens too, there will be many people, when warmer weather returns, looking at collapsed hedges, broken branches, and seeing years of growth destroyed in a matter of hours. Hedges are vital components of many garden landscapes, bringing privacy, reduced noise, extra warmth and creating a calm neutral garden backdrop. When damaged all that is destroyed, and there is no such thing as ‘instant hedge’ to replace it with. Could the damage have been prevented? Can I repair it now? Do I need to plant a new hedge? These are the questions that will be going through everyone’s head as they survey the situation in their garden.

Has the cold killed my hedge?

Consider this – current record-breaking low temperatures are bringing lows from much colder zones than your own ‘normal’ one. If the difference is slight, you will probably only see browning and scorching of foliage. If it is significant, then you could easily see a lot of dead plants, including hedging evergreens, when spring arrives. Since this deep freeze has lasted several days, the low temperatures have had time to ‘bite’ into your plants. While smaller plants below the snow will probably be fine, shrubs, trees and hedges could easily be damaged. If you know what plants your hedge is made off, here are the minimums usually recommended for some of the most common ones, in the Fahrenheit system normally used in America. If your neighborhood experienced temperatures more than 10 degrees below these, then there is a very good chance you will need to replace your hedge come spring – sorry.

  • Emerald Green Arborvitae – minus 50 degrees
  • Thuja Green Giant – minus 20 degrees
  • Leyland Cypress – minus 20 degrees
  • Italian Cypress – 0 degrees

If you are replacing a hedge, the question becomes, ‘should I use a hardier plant this time around?’ In the past we would have said, ‘no’, because in most areas a low temperature significantly outside your zone only happens about every 40 years – otherwise you would be in a lower zone, right? But with an increase in extreme weather, probably due to man-made global warming, these events could become more common, as the climate shifts to a new normal. So if you are already at the bottom of the hardiness range for a plant, moving to something a zone or two hardier could be a good idea.

What now? Can I cut it back and re-grow it?

This is a common question when hedges are broken, and if only we could say, “yes”. That of course depends on what plant has been used to make it. Hedges of broad-leaf evergreens, like holly, can be cut back as much as you need, and they will quickly re-sprout, so no problem at all. But most people prefer the smooth surface and easy trimming of conifers – the needle evergreens, especially Arborvitae, Cypress, and of course Thuja Green Giant. These plants cannot re-sprout from older, bare branches – which is why it is best to trim regularly, starting right after planting, and trim little and often. There are just a few evergreens of this type, with yew trees being the most well-known and widely used for hedges, that will re-sprout from older branches. They can be cut right back to a few limbs, and they will quickly regenerate. For the rest the answer is, “No”.

This means that when you are cleaning up your damaged hedge, cut branches back to a side-branch with foliage on it – otherwise you will be looking at that bare stump for a very long time. Even if the result is a very ‘gappy’ hedge, with care, fertilizer and regular trimming, a lot of it may fill in again. Give it a couple of years, and then re-assess.

Can I fill in gaps with young plants?

This is a possible solution when only part of a hedge is damaged, but it can fail, mainly because it is hard for new plants to become established in soil full of the roots of the older plants. There are three things you can do to improve your chances. First, use the biggest plants you can handle. These will have a large root-ball and be able to cope better with the surrounding trees. Secondly, prepare as big a planting hole as possible, removing old roots, and making a good-sized gap for the new plant. You can also put a root barrier on both sides – not all around – to slow the invasion of that nice fresh soil by the older plants in your hedge. Landscape fabric, or barriers for bamboo, are usually available at local garden centers. Finally, be sure to water and fertilize the new plants regularly and thoroughly, for the first two growing seasons, to give them a chance to compete.

Remember when planting to put the stem of the new plant in line with the existing ones, and not, as some people do, with it in front, level with the existing hedge front. If you do that, the new plants will not be able to develop properly, as they will be over-trimmed on one side.

Should I just replant?

In the end, this is often the best advice. Fixing damaged hedges is difficult, unless the damage is minor, and removing the old one and replanting can be easier. It will also liberate a large area of your garden, as old, over-grown hedges – the type most likely to collapse in a snow-storm – are often very wide and steal lots of your garden. Of course, a new hedge will take time to grow, but if you choose fast growing trees like Thuja Green Giant, then the time will soon pass, as with growth-rates of 3 to 5 feet when young – really, this has been demonstrated in trials – you will be looking at a great hedge in just a few years. Remember this time to keep it well-trimmed, and narrow, especially at the top, as wide tops and overgrown hedges are the ones that usually fail.

Cordless Battery Trimmers for Your Hedges

In recent years there has been a quiet revolution in hedge trimming. Not in the way it is done, but in what tools are used to do it. Commercial landscapers and other gardening professionals were the first to embrace this change, but gardeners are now starting to get on board too, and they are discovering that it is possible to both throw away that noisy, smelly, gasoline-driven trimmer, and forget about that awkward and dangerous trailing cable too. The battery revolution that gave us the cordless phone, then the cordless vacuum cleaner, and dozens of other cordless appliances, has now given us the cordless hedge trimmer – bringing a freedom to trimming that has to be experienced to be believed.

Cordless trimmers have two major advantages over the older choices. First, they are as quiet as any electric trimmer – it is really just the cutting action itself that makes noise, since the electric motor is basically silent – but that trailing cord, and yards and yards of extension are gone. Until you try one it is hard to realize the freedom you have, but trimming suddenly became a whole lot more pleasant. Plus, the elimination of the gasoline engine means not just quiet, but a total lack of fumes, and no gas-cans in the garage either. We are all much more aware of air pollution than we used to be and removing that smelly – and often smoky – machine from your yard is wonderful. Now you can smell the fresh-cut cedar instead of gas fumes.

Like all those other cordless appliances, these newer trimmers are powered by the battery revolution that created the re-chargeable lithium battery. Like all batteries, they can run out of power, and although re-charge times have been reduced hugely, getting the job done can fall apart when the battery runs flat. Make sure the machine you are considering has a lithium battery, and not a cheaper (and inferior) nickel-cadmium one. Lithium charges quicker, and holds far more power, and that is a key consideration. Recent developments have greatly reduced the charging time, with some higher-quality trimmers completely recharging in the time it takes you to make and drink a cup of coffee or eat a quick lunch. That saves you the cost of buying a second battery. Look at the voltage too, a 20-volt battery is minimal, and for more power, and therefore more speed and endurance, consider a 40-volt battery,

How Much Trimming Do I Need to Do?

This is the first question to ask yourself. If you have one large hedge, then how long do you currently take to trim it? If you have planted a new hedge – maybe with Thuja Green Giant – then you might not have much idea, and it depends very much on how tall your hedges are. Also, there is a limit to how long you can work trimming without a break. However a hedge trimmer that runs out of power in less than an hour is only going to be useful for small shrubs around the house, or a short section of boxwood.

Tests of cordless trimmers show that between one and two hours is normal, despite what manufacturers may claim. If you choose a smaller machine, then consider getting a second battery, which will avoid the problem of suddenly running out of power just when you are almost done. Even if you don’t think you will need a second battery, check if you can buy one, as some trimmers don’t offer that, and if the battery fails you will be looking at buying a whole new trimmer.

How Long Do I Need to Spend Trimming?

As a home gardener you probably won’t need more than a couple of hours, and remember too that there is only so long you can hold a 10-pound machine in the air. Most better-quality cordless trimmers will last between one and two hours before needing charging, which will probably be sufficient for a session – keep it turned off when you are moving around, putting up or taking down ladders, etc., and only run it while you are actually trimming. If you want more time, or those commercial landscapers reading, there are two options that will help you keep going longer. Move to a backpack battery – which is also a good option if you find the weight of a trimmer with its battery a bit much – as these have much longer run-times, or secondly, invest in a STIHL trimmer. This company pioneered battery-powered garden equipment, and their tools have outstanding battery life – the AP300 36-volt battery is good for about 5 hours of steady running.

How Often Do I Trim?

This might seem like an odd question, but it relates to a major limitation with trimmers, which is the thickness of branches they will cut through. If you don’t trim often, or just have an informal screen you cut back every couple of years, then you will need a trimmer that can cut through ¾-inch material. There are two things to look at here. Look at the absolute width of the guide spaces – obviously you can only cut what will fit into the guide – and secondly, how quickly will it cut through that branch. There is a surprising degree of variation in this test, but generally a more powerful machine will obviously cut faster. If you trim infrequently, then you should consider a more powerful machine, and avoid the frustration of jamming branches, or resorting to loppers to get the job done. If you are a frequent trimmer, then you will be cutting thinner and softer material, so this issue is going to be less important to you.

How Tall and Wide is My Hedge?

When putting in a hedge, and deciding on its height, always go for the minimum. It becomes exponentially more difficult to cut hedges as they increase in height and being able to trim from the ground is so much faster than using ladders. The length of the cutting bar, and the availability of extension pieces, are big factors to consider if you have taller hedges. Some extensions can cut at 90o, which means you can trim the top from the ground. Cutting bars vary in length, and between 16 and 20 inches is a good all-round length to go for. Shorter blades are perfect for smaller bushes, and longer ones – they go up to 40 inches – are a good choice if you have a large hedge.

What is My Budget?

Obviously this is important to us all. Expect to pay about $100 for a basic, lower-power trimmer, and over $200 for something more durable and substantial. Commercial-grade equipment will run much higher, but using it is over-kill for most home gardeners.

Winter Care of Evergreen Hedges

Winter is a difficult time in the garden, especially if you live in colder regions, although even in warmer areas sudden cold snaps can wreak havoc, as happened in the South recently. Snow, cold winds, and in warmer areas periods of dryness, can all damage hedges and destroy the careful work and nurturing of years. So taking preventative steps is always a worthwhile investment of time, and with just a little effort and attention we can make the difference between a hedge that comes through winter looking perfect, and one that needs lots of attention and time to come back again.

Tips for Winter Care of Hedges and Evergreens

  • Keep the soil moist, by watering through fall, and during winter dry spells
  • Protect the foliage, especially with new hedges, by using an anti-desiccant spray
  • Keep salt at bay, with screening placed away from the hedge, not right on it
  • Use a high-potash fertilizer, this element protects from dryness by thickening the cell walls

Water Your Hedge in Winter

In every region, watering is the single best thing you can do for your hedge. In cold areas, where the ground freezes for periods of time, and even all winter long, evergreen plants find it difficult to draw up water from the frozen ground – imagine drinking a glass of frozen water. This means that the foliage, which is still losing water to the atmosphere, especially when dry or cold winds blow, can desiccate and become dried out. This may not be noticeable until spring, when new growth should begin, and instead the warmer days complete the drying process of these already-dead branches. This effect, called ‘winter burn’, is seen not only on hedges but on other evergreens as well, so while watering your hedge, water your specimen evergreens too.

Watering helps because if the ground is very moist it takes more cold input to freeze it, and some un-frozen water will remain available to your trees. Since the foliage will survive best if it is fully plumped-up with water when the ground freezes, you should begin this winter watering in late fall, and continue until the ground freezes. Especially with younger, newer hedges and evergreens, mulch over the soil will also help, not just to conserve the moisture you have added, but to keep the soil warmer and reduce the intensity of freezing.

In warmer areas watering issues can also arise, as long dry stretches are common in winter, and just because the temperatures are lower doesn’t mean the ground is not drying out. It is easy to be caught unawares when cold sunny days draw lots of moisture from evergreen foliage, and directly from the ground. Check around the base of your hedges and evergreens weekly, and if the soil seems dry, give it all a good soaking.

Speaking of soaking, it is also important to water correctly. Standing for a few minutes with a hose spraying is unlikely to be very effective, since you want the water to penetrate deeply into the soil, not just dampen the surface. A slow-running hose pipe, or a soaker hose of some type, will be far more effective in re-filling the deeper water reservoirs in your soil. When putting in a hedge it makes lots of sense to install a simple watering system at the same time, which can even be connected to a timer. You don’t need a full-scale irrigation system – just a trickle hose or ‘leaky pipe’

In colder areas you probably won’t need to water during winter, but watch out when early spring arrives, as then too the soil can dry rapidly as the temperatures rise, especially if it has been a dry winter. Remember to keep checking until your full spring and summer schedule becomes established.

Use Anti-Desiccant Sprays

It is surprising that these sprays, used by professionals for decades, are not used much more by gardeners. Perhaps it is the distrust of spraying, but in fact these materials are all-natural, and so they are completely safe to use. They contain an ingredient called ‘pinene’, which is extracted from pine trees cut for lumber. When mixed with water this material forms a giant network of molecules that becomes a water-proof film across the foliage it is sprayed on. It is this coating that greatly reduces water loss from the foliage, and that makes it so useful. On evergreens in winter, especially if you have planted them recently, it can make an enormous difference, keeping them green and healthy even in difficult and exposed locations. Spray shortly before the ground freezes, and if there are periods above freezing during the winter, especially if it rains, then try to get out and re-spray, as heavy rain will weaken or remove the coating. It is basically invisible once applied, so it is much more attractive, and more effective too, than the old-fashioned burlap wrapping still seen in some colder areas.

Protect your plants from salt spray and runoff

Salt is the enemy of plants. It sucks moisture out of the foliage, and out of the roots too if it enters the soil. Luckily its use is declining, and there are better alternatives for your driveway, especially if you have a hedge alongside it. You can’t control what your city puts down though, so if you have hedges along the roadside, you can easily have them severely damaged by salt drift blown up by traffic or high winds. The best protection is to catch it before it lands on your plants, and the simplest method is to put up a burlap screen, placed a foot or so in front of the hedge, and a little taller. This will trap the salty spray and hold it away from the foliage. A common mistake is to hang the burlap right on the hedge, but if you think about it for a moment, by doing that you are holding a wet, salty cloth against the leaves, which is at least as damaging as doing nothing at all. That gap is important, so make sure you create it when putting up your screening.

Use High-potash Fertilizer in Fall

You won’t see it labelled with that name, but if you read the label you will see a relatively high number at the end of that formula of three numbers showing the composition. These fertilizers are often sold as ‘fall-fertilizer’ for evergreens, and their secret ingredient is the element potassium, often called potash. This is held in the plant sap and causes the cells to take up extra water. Not only does this protect against drying out, it stimulates the cell walls to thicken, so that water is lost more slowly through them. As well, the extra elements in the sap makes it less likely to freeze. Together, all these effects reduce the risk of winter damage to the foliage. Although not really a winter tip, as it should have been done already, it is something to think about for next fall, to give your evergreens the protection they need.

Thuja Green Giant – Still Number One Evergreen

It took almost 60 years for today’s most popular hedging plant to attract serious attention. It began as a seedling in a nursery in Denmark in 1937, but it was only after plants were grown at the National Arboretum in Washington DC that its remarkable properties were noticed. Success followed quickly after that, and very soon new plants were being created in their millions and snapped up by gardeners all across the country, eager to replace old hedges with something new that wouldn’t take a decade to look good.

Fastest Evergreen There Is

Thuja Green Giant certainly satisfied that need for speed, and it remains the fastest-growing evergreen around. Such claims are made for many plants, but this one has research to back it up. In trials at the University of Arkansas, tiny plants grew to 10 feet tall and were 5 feet wide after only 7 years. In the early years growth rates of over 3 feet a year were shown by the young plants.

These were plants growing in an open field, with just a little irrigation in summer. In a garden, with well-prepared soil, a solid fertilizer program, and plenty of water, growth in excess of 3 feet can be realistically expected in the first 3 years, falling to about 2 feet a year after that, and slowing to about 1 foot a year when the plants are mature. That is ideal, because once you reach the height you want, having to trim off 1 foot a year is fine, but trimming much more could become a real chore.

The reason for this rapid growth lies in the origin of the plant. DNA analysis has shown that it is definitely a hybrid, between the Western Redcedar, Thuja plicata, and the Japanese Arborvitae, Thuja standishii.  One grows in Oregon and Washington state, and the other grows in Japan, and they must both have been growing near each other in that Danish nursery. Such hybrid plants show something botanists call ‘hybrid vigor’. The weaknesses of each plant are masked by the strengths of the other, so the child of this meeting is stronger, faster-growing, and healthier than either parent. It is the same thing we see in many food crops, which are also hybrids.

Winter Hardiness

That hybrid vigor also helps make Thuja Green Giant really tough and resistant to cold. It stays green, unlike many other evergreens, that turn brown or bronze in winter, looking less than attractive. Rich green all winter – that what the Green Giant brings. It is completely hardy right through zone 5, and also in warm areas through zone 8 and even into zone 9. Almost wherever you live you can grow this plant easily.

If you do live in a colder area, you would be better choosing an improved form of the native white cedar, such as Emerald Green Arborvitae, which is hardy all the way into zone 2. Wow, minus 50 degrees! Although the white cedar or arborvitae turns bronze in winter, Emerald Green doesn’t, so it is worth using it, rather than cheaper ‘wild’ plants that are often offered locally.

If you live in a very dry area, like Arizona or New Mexico, or in zone 9, consider growing the Italian Cypress. This plant is not as fast growing as Thuja Green Giant, but it needs much less water, and it is renowned for its drought resistance. Its color is very dark green, and it makes a cooling background in a hot, sunny garden.

Rarely Bothered by Pests

Because of that hybrid vigor we mentioned, Thuja Green Giant is only very rarely seen with any serious pest or disease problems. Almost every grower reports that the just don’t see more than the odd patch of pests, which quickly disappear, and diseases are usually the result of very poor growing conditions, for example planting in soil that is always wet and boggy. Although it likes a regular supply of water, good drainage is important, so that air gets to the roots and keeps them healthy. If you do plant in a low-lying, always wet area, dig a raised mound or ridge, a good 6 inches above the level of the surrounding soil. Dig out soil and throw it up to make the mound – the resulting low area then acts as a drain. On this mound the soil will be drier, and your plants will thrive, while still having access to the water from below.

Deer Resistant Too

In many areas, deer are a real problem, and although we have to be careful to say ‘resistant’ and not ‘deer-proof’, many people do report that Thuja Green Giant is not bothered by deer. This is very different from many other evergreens, which are breakfast, lunch and dinner for local deer. There are lots of horror stories of gardeners spending years growing a nice Thuja hedge, only to see it one morning in winter stripped of all the lower branches and made completely useless. That seems not to have happened with Thuja Green Giant, so you can use it with confidence.

Deer are very unpredictable, and if hungry enough they will tackle anything, so if you do have regular deer in winter, spraying with a repellant makes sense. To turn your hedge or screen into a deer-proof barrier for your whole garden, add a chain-link fence, 2 or 3 feet behind the plants. Let the hedge just grow through it, and deer with never get through. You can never be too careful when it comes to those adorable but pesky critters.

Worth a Little Care

With a plant that is so easy to grow, neglect is still not the best approach. Spend some time and effort digging the area you are going to plant into. Add some rich organic material, such as garden compost or rotted manure if you can find some. Even peat moss is worthwhile if nothing else is available. When planting, allow 3 to 5 feet between plants, depending on how quickly you want them to fill in, and how wide you can let your hedge or screen become. For an untrimmed screen, 5 feet or even more is best. For a hedge you plan to clip regularly, 3 or 4 feet apart is about right. In the first year water deeply once a week, getting the water at the base of each plant, but also on the surrounding soil, to encourage the roots to grow outwards. In later years water during hot, dry spells. Have a simple fertilizer program, especially for the first few years. It really pays off. Slow-release fertilizer will last a whole season from just one spring application. It is more expensive, but the time saved is often worth it. Finally, clip right from the get-go, so that you build a dense structure. Waiting until you reach the final height is a common mistake. Just a light trim is all you need as your hedge develops – it really pays off in the future.