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Hedges without edges

Enough with traditional pruning and its puritanical lines. Let your trees and shrubs relax and mingle, add blooming accents and experiment with plants -- all while holding on to your cherished privacy.

February 23, 2006|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

PRUNING trees and shrubs to form hedges is as old as gardening. In the great estates of the past, hedges framed views, defined borders and marked transitions to wilderness. In modern Los Angeles, an average lot is a sixth of an acre. A hedge allows homeowners to soften the transition to the street or blot out an eyesore, be it an alley, a McMansion, a crack house, a neighbor's kitchen window, a jalopy or junkyard dog. Increasingly, hedges no longer frame views. They are the view.

So why not make them beautiful? Set in a line, everything from paddle cactus to giant sequoias can create a hedge. Yet for some reason, fewer than 10 species dominate: boxwood, ficus, Texas privet, ficus, podocarpus, ficus, photinia, ficus, juniper and especially ficus.

It would be easy to blame Home Depot for failing to stock greater variety, but that wouldn't explain what we do to the plants after we buy them. Our pruning finishes off whatever personality a plant might possess. Somewhere, somehow, the idea sneaked into the collective imagination that hedges have to be rectilinear.

They don't.

This is in praise of hedges without edges.

As causes go, the importance of fluffing out our hedges might sound on par with a campaign to secure pedicures for zoo elephants. Until, that is, a credible estimate is given of how much land we devote to this type of planting. Peter Gordon, professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, helped to estimate the collective length of the hedges in greater metropolitan Los Angeles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Hedges -- In a Home section article Thursday about hedges, a cover photo of Mark Hasencamp's Hancock Park home was credited to Times photographer Robert Lachman. It should have been credited to Times photographer Al Seib.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 02, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 6 Features Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Hedges -- In last Thursday's Home section article about hedges, a cover photo of Mark Hasencamp's home credited to Times photographer Robert Lachman should have been credited to Times photographer Al Seib.

"There are, say, 15 million people in greater L.A.," he writes by e-mail. "Assume 60% are in single-family homes, and 2.5 people per home. That's 3.6 million single-family homes." Then assume the average lot size is about 100 feet by 75 feet, he says. "Say half of these have hedges through one 75-foot edge. That's roughly 26,000 miles." In other words, that's more than the equatorial circumference of the world. And we're not counting hedges surrounding apartments, parks, offices and so on.

So, hedges aren't trivial. The greater the thought we put into our global green cummerbund, the less water, work, noise and property disputes down the line. We might even attract songbirds.

Our top 10 hedging plants became the equivalent of garden wallpaper not just because they survived us, but also because they grew fast. That view we wanted to block can be eclipsed in three to five years. The only problem is that hedges don't stop growing. The next 30 years may be spent in privacy, but you will be on a maintenance treadmill. Where else in the world is so much greenery planted, watered and pruned only to be clipped and thrown away?

Then there is the Berlin Wall factor. When you want a hedge to run between two tightly placed homes, and the view that you are obscuring is right into your neighbor's bathroom, dense is good, narrow is vital. This is a job for Italian cypress or sweet bay. Yet out front, a block-like hedge can feel hostile, as if you're building bombs or cultivating anthrax in the living room.

Finally, there is wildlife value. Oft-shorn hedges become so dense that even a goldfinch would be hard-pressed to find refuge inside the blocky structure. As hedges no longer frame nature but stand in for it, we should remember bird song.

In juggling all this, few resources are better than the Sunset Western Garden Book and the newly published "California Native Plants for the Garden" by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien. After reading, reconnoiter. One of the best places to shop for ideas is Hancock Park, L.A.'s unofficial garden design showground. Toward Beverly Boulevard, where the mansions of blue bloods give way to small, Mediterranean-style homes, variations of two hedges could be used for almost any small home in Southern California.

Both began as the work of garden designer Judy Horton. In two compact front gardens, she defined the property lines by running rows of rosemary, kept low and pruned flat for a formal boundary. Rising from behind these are boughs of that gently ballooning, silver-leaved fruit tree, the pineapple guava.

Art collector Mark Hasencamp bought the property with Horton's structure intact and liked it so well, he left it. Working with another design firm, Naturescapes, they added olive trees behind the guavas and along the parkway, creating a shimmering screen that does indeed hedge the house from the street and creates a small courtyard garden, yet is an attraction for the passerby. The word Hasencamp likes for the effect: "romantic."

Not far away from Hasencamp's home, the corner house of filmmaker Scott Goldstein borders a busy cross street. He had a narrow, precipitously angled strip of hillside to place a hedge. Nobody would have blamed him for putting in a wall of ficus and hitting them with Miracle-Gro and weekly water. Instead, he used a dusky variety of California natives.

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