A homeowner asked me to recommend a shrub for a privacy hedge 8 to 12 feet tall.
I couldn’t recommend one—but I could suggest a dozen or so. The thing is, I believe in diversity. A mixture of different shrubs is far superior to a mass planting of a single species.
For starters, a mixed hedge is more interesting. It could contain, for example, some forsythia for early blooms, lilac for May blossoms, and ninebark for June flowers. In addition to spring flowers, the American cranberry bush would add autumn interest with both its scarlet fruit and its red foliage. So would black chokeberry, and you’d get the added benefit of a harvest of healthful aronia berries.
Arrowhead viburnum is another good choice to attract both passersby and songbirds. Creamy-white summer flowers are followed by blue-black berries in autumn. Many, such as Autumn Jazz, offer sensational fall color in a kaleidoscope of colors. Another named Chicago Lustre skips the autumn show but has instead exceptional glossy, dark-green foliage all season.
My respect for the common privet has also grown in recent years. Although this fast-growing shrub is too often seen as a single-species hedge hacked into submission with formal pruning, it boasts bright green foliage that looks good all season. Tiny flowers don’t get much attention until you notice their fragrant scent or the butterflies they attract.
Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) offers sweetly-scented, reddish-brown spring flowers. This wonderful but under-used shrub thrives in shade or sun.
Even when no shrub is blooming in a mixed hedge, I enjoy the contrasting shades and textures of the varied species.
Throw a witchhazel into the mix and you can enjoy either late fall or early spring flowers when there are no leaves on the shrubs. Vernal witchhazel blooms in February or early March while autumn witchhazel’s yellow flowers open in late fall.
Long-lasting beauty isn’t the only reason I favor a mixed hedge. If only a single species is planted, a disease or insect could devastate the whole hedge. With a diverse planting, a hole here or there will leave the hedge relatively intact, and the holes are easily filled.
For those who suffer from allergies, a diverse hedge means you won’t get an overload of any particular pollen.
And growing a mixed hedge is easy. If you plant a variety of different shrubs and allow them to retain their natural shape, you can skip the frequent summer pruning required to maintain a formal hedge. Maintenance is reduced to renewal pruning—taking out the largest and oldest branches in late winter.