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Episode 28 – Living on the Hedge – Best Plants for Hedges and Composting Explained

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

This week, we’re hedging our bets – and talking hedges and screening.

Hedging can be defined as plants measuring 5’+ feet planted in a row; a “screen” is generally defined as three or more plants positioned to screen off an unfavorable view. When choosing plants for hedging or screening, there are two big questions to answer: 1) evergreen or deciduous, and 2) just one type of plant, or a mix of different species and varieties? Ultimately, these questions are a matter of personal taste, and of course, the goal you are trying to accomplish  by planting a hedge or screen in the first place. 

When it comes to deciduous hedge plants (those that lose their leaves in autumn), some of our favorites include lilacs, panicle hydrangeas, and space-saving varieties like Purple Pillar rose of Sharon, Laced Up elderberry, Limelight hydrangea, flowering quince, lilacs, ninebark, viburnum, and Fine Line Buckthorn. Privet was, at one time, the standard choice, but it has fallen out of favor in many areas, not least of all because older varieties are invasive. If you wish to plant a privet nowadays, opt for the non-invasive varieties Golden Ticket Vicary privet or Kindly Japanese privet
For our friends in warmer climates, nandina, aka Heavenly bamboo is a popular choice; Rick recounts a story of pruning Nandina in Texas on Saturday morning, February 1, 2003 and experiencing the Columbia space shuttle disaster overhead. Other options Rick has noticed when he runs in Florida neighborhoods include Podocarpus, Clusia, Eugenia, seagrape, oleander, bougainvillea, Ficus lyrata, and even Areca palm used as hedging.

Our word of the day has to be “smeuse,” which means a hole in a hedge or a wall. No, not “schmooze,” as in the friendly persuasive manner we converse to gain favor; a smeuse is a hole in the base of a hedge, made by small animals and habitually used. It’s cartoonish in nature as the rabbit flees for cover closely chased by a dog through the same smeuse. The rabbit breaks for freedom on “smeuse control” and the dog is just being a dog.

In classic fashion, Rick reminds us that “hedge fund” is not your landscaping budget and Stacey says she saw Rick’s pun “hedge-u-cation” coming before the show even started.

Why: Though there are lots and lots of different shrubs that can be used as hedges, when most people think of a hedge, they probably think of arborvitae. It’s a classic choice: it’s evergreen, reasonably fast-growing, pretty versatile in terms of its cultural needs, and easy and fast for growers to produce, so there are plenty on the market. But when it comes to choosing an arborvitae for a hedge, not all of them are the same – despite how they may appear. There are perhaps five or six common varieties out there, like Emerald Green arborvitae and Green Giant, but today we are discussing a lesser-known alternative: Spring Grove arborvitae.

The first thing you need to know about Spring Grove arborvitae is that it is big. At 25-30’ tall and 12-15’ wide, this is not going to be the best choice for you if you are trying to plant a privacy hedge and preserve yard space. However, if you do have the room to let it grow, you will be treated to an absolutely gorgeous pyramidal arborvitae with a very distinctive texture. Spring Grove is a Western arborvitae, known botanically as Thuja plicata. “Plicata” means in plaits, or braided, and that’s an apt description for the unique foliage of this plant. All arborvitae foliage has some resemblance to coral or seaweed in my opinion, but that of Western arborvitae is much more so, and it does indeed look like it is tightly braided. If you are comparing them side by side, you’ll also notice that the foliage of Western arborvitae is thicker, coarser, and glossier than the more common Eastern arborvitae. So it not only looks quite different (and more attractive, again, in my opinion), it also gives Western arborvitae like Spring Grove some measure of deer resistance. Now, don’t get too excited – I would hardly consider it deer proof – but it is definitely far less favored by deer and if you only have the occasional visiting deer, makes arborvitae a much more viable option than if you planted Eastern arborvitae.

Another important factor about Western arborvitae is they aren’t quite as hardy as Eastern arborvitae – Western can grow in areas cold as USDA zone 5 and Eastern all the way down to USDA zone 3. Spring Grove is known for its excellent cold tolerance and its ability to maintain a lush, green color and appealing glossy foliage even in cold winters.

Who: Spring Grove arborvitae joined the Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs line by way of Cincinnati, Ohio, where it was discovered at Spring Grove Cemetery. Spring Grove is not just a cemetery but also an arboretum, and with over 175 years of existence, it has some pretty incredible trees and shrubs. Spring Grove arborvitae (Thuja plicata ‘Grovepli’) stood out from other Western arborvitae on the grounds for its dense, pyramidal shape and its ability to maintain excellent green color, even in winter. The cemetery employs a staff of horticulturist and arborists who recognized that it was different than the rest, and we were able to introduce it and provide another unique option for those looking for hedging – or a very distinctive large evergreen specimen. 

How to Grow: Aside from the difference in hardiness zones – USDA zones 5-8 for Western arborvitae vs. USDA zones 3-8 for Eastern arborvitae – both species of arborvitae need similar growing conditions. That is to say, grow them in full to part sun and well-drained soil, with a good 2-3″/5-7cm layer of shredded bark mulch to protect the shallow roots and conserve moisture. Pruning will not be needed, though the plant can be clipped for arrangements and holiday décor if you wish. As mentioned above, Spring Grove Western arborvitae is more deer resistant than Eastern arborvitae are, but they should be protected with a deer repellent or netting for their first couple seasons after planting. Once the plant is well-established and begins to approach a height that deer can’t easily reach, the plant should need less protection. 

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

Rose asks: “We had a ‘worm moon’ this week. Is that why I am starting to see robins on my lawn?”

This is kind of a chicken and egg situation: the robins are returning to lawns because the soil is thawing enough for worms and other critters to come up to the surface where robins can eat them, and that’s why March’s full moon is called a “worm moon.” That term, worm moon, derives from the names that the Algonquin people in the Northeastern US used to describe the various full moons. These were popularized by the Old Farmer’s Almanac and while they may or may not be the actual names used by the Algonquins, they do correspond closely with seasonal cues and opportunities that would have impacted their lives – you can read more here. April’s full moon is known as the pink moon, for our native moss pink (Phlox subulata), which blooms in April. Let us know if you have any of those around for the next full moon!

Teresa is wondering about tradescantia: I have a question regarding tradescantia. I buy a new one of every year to use outside in my garden and never bring it in because I’m afraid of bringing in bugs that might infect my other plants. I would love to buy just one and bring it inside and out every year. Can you explain some general practices that would be helpful in doing that wisely as well as any specific practices that might apply to tradescantia, please?

We have a couple of recommendations. One, you could just take cuttings off your tradescantia to root and grow indoors (provided it isn’t a patented variety). This will give you a sort of “fresh start” with the plant. Second, keep in mind that there are outdoor plant pests and indoor plant pests, and outdoor plant pests rarely are an issue indoors. This is because outdoor pests genuinely cannot survive indoors, so even if a few hitch hike a ride in, they won’t last long. If your plants seem like they are suddenly “exploding”  in pests when you bring them in, this is a stress response – many common indoor pests, like mealybug, whitefly, and aphids, exist on plants in small, unnoticeable populations when the plant is experiencing healthy growth. Going indoors is stressful, and can sometimes allow these opportunistic pests to proliferate. Rick suggests using houseplant granules if you wish, however, bear in mind that if the plant is stressed enough for these population explosions to occur, then it’s probably not very happy in its spot and should be moved or discarded anyway. 

Jim writes, I heard something yesterday on the radio that house ferns are a good way to help with humidity in your house, mentioned that they can keep a good level of 50%, what kind should I get?

It’s actually the reverse: ferns need a humid environment in order to survive indoors, and if you are making the environment suitable for ferns, then you’ll probably end up with more indoor humidity. While humidity can be increased to some extent by misting the plants, it’s not enough to provide the humidity that many popular ferns – namely, Boston fern and maidenhair fern – need to thrive long term. Instead, look for rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia), bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus), and blue star fern (Phelbodium sp.), which will do well under normal household humidity levels. 

Branching News - Rick

This week, Stacey and Rick interview Justin Morgan from Morgan Composting, home of “Dairy Doo.” Watch the video below, or check us out on your favorite podcast platform, to learn about the biology of composting, how cow manure can “jump start” compost, and why a soil test is a good idea for anyone – not just farmers and serious gardeners. Justin also shares the elements of creating healthy soil and produce and the key elements to making good backyard compost including time, ratio of elements, moisture and oxygen.

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