The Best Hedging Plants for Formal Hedges

Updated on April 25, 2019
Will Apse profile image

The author has worked in conservation and woodland management over many years.

A modern formal hedge arrangement.
A modern formal hedge arrangement. | Source

The best hedging plants will act as privacy screens, impenetrable barriers or simply beautiful features that delineate special areas- depending on your needs,

A hedge can be created from almost any species of shrub. It is simply a matter of spacing the individual plants so that they grow together without any gaps. Having said that, some plants are far better suited than others.

Formal hedges need to be created from plants that take regular pruning well. With informal or natural hedges the choice is more often to do with foliage color, flowering and growth habit.

What is Your Hedge For?

Working out what you need is the first step to getting the perfect hedge.

  • For privacy?
  • As a boundary marker?
  • To keep out intruders (including the four legged kind)?
  • As a windbreak?
  • As a way of creating special spaces in a garden?
  • As a feature? Hedges can be beautiful as well as practical.

With these questions answered, you can start to make your choice.

A simple hedge as a boundary marker
A simple hedge as a boundary marker | Source

Formal Hedges: Pros and Cons

If you decide to go for a formal hedge you need to be prepared to keep it trimmed. This is not difficult with shorter hedges in small runs. Long, tall hedges can be a challenge.

Formal hedges have significant advantages, though, in terms of the space that they take up. You can keep them narrow to maximize growing space for other plants.

You can also choose the height you want- not so easy with informal hedges.

A well-trimmed privet hedge, for example, can be a tall, impenetrable barrier to prying eyes, neighborhood dogs and human intruders. Or it could be a neat way of edging a pathway at a height a three-year-old could jump over.

Natural hedges can be a mix of many species.
Natural hedges can be a mix of many species.

Natural Hedges: Worth a Thought in Larger Gardens and Backyards

While this article mostly covers formal hedges, natural hedges are always worth a thought.

A big advantage is that they will only need light pruning from time to time. They can offer a beautiful soft boundary to a garden and many flowering shrubs will be the perfect home for wildlife.

Natural hedges are only really suitable for bigger gardens—they like to spread.

Costs of Hedges

The more quickly you want a hedge to be fully established, the more expensive it will be.

It is entirely possible to establish a perfect hedge at no expense at all. Cuttings of privet, laurel or box are easy to find (ask a friendly neighbor). If you take the cuttings in spring, you will have a line of little plants by Fall. These will form a low hedge in a few years and a tall one in several.

If you want a hedge quickly, you will need to buy well-established plants and plant them close together. One of the cheapest options for a tall, quickly established hedge is cedar.

A single, three-foot cedar is around $10, installed. They are spaced at one-foot intervals, so you can easily work out the cost.

Within a year the gaps will have filled in and you will have a hedge four or five tall.

Evergreen or Deciduous?

Hedges that keep their leaves year round have big advantages for privacy and as wind breaks:

  • Popular evergreen hedges include:
  • Box (Buxus)
  • Yew (Taxus baccata)
  • Holly (Ilex)
  • Firethorn (Pyacantha coccinea)
  • Variegated Japanese Laurel
  • Cotoneaster

Deciduous hedge plants offer a wider choice of foliage colors.

Getting Local Advice: Avoid Pest Issues and Invasive Species

If you are thinking about creating a formal hedge, the best advice is local advice from nurseries and neighbors.

For example, some of the plants described below are considered invasive in some parts of the country. Privet, for example, is a significant problem in Southern states where it invades natural areas and outgrows native species.

Some plants that will make fine hedges in some areas will suffer serious pest problems in other areas. Climate is everything...

Box hedges can be labor-intensive.
Box hedges can be labor-intensive.

The Best Formal Hedge Plants

Here are several varieties of formal hedges that take well to the shears:

Boxwood (Buxus)

Boxwood has been used for hundreds of years in formal gardens. It can be shaped to produce intricate topiary. It will make geometric shapes easily—very formal arrangements like knot gardens are increasingly popular.

If you notice very low edging hedges around pathways they are usually buxus. There are dark foliage varieties or brighter yellow forms.

Buxus can also be used to make soft shaped hedges that do not spread too wide and eat up space.

They are usually evergreen with varieties to suit most areas of the US.

The drawback for some people will be a relatively slow growth rate. The payoff is the superb texture.

The video shows some of the many things that you can do with boxwood.

Privet (Ligustrum species)

Privet as a barrier and windbreak
Privet as a barrier and windbreak | Source

Common or European Privet forms a dense, impenetrable hedge when pruned regularly (as seen right). It can offer all the privacy anyone would need with a maximum height of up to 15 feet.

Golden vicary privet has an attractive, bright, golden foliage. More traditional privet varieties are more intensely green

It is considered an invasive weed in the Southern US and its use should be avoided.

The video below shows some typical uses of Privet and illustrates just how versatile a plant it is.

Zones: 5 - 9

Japanese Barberry (Berberis varieties)

Japanese Barberry
Japanese Barberry

Japanese Barbery offers vivid colored foliage with greens and reds of all kinds to choose from. The Fall show of colors is spectacular.

Some people dislike the spines but these can deter intruders (including deer).

Growing Zones: 3 - 9


Laurel is a native species in the US. This makes a laurel hedge a good home for local wildlife as well as an effective barrier/privacy screen.

Popular forms include the Mountain Laurel which produces wonderful flowers and is evergreen.

The dense nature of the foliage and the good height makes it a popular choice near busy roads—it is an effective sound absorber.

Growing Zones: 8-10

Japanese Euonymus

New growth on a Japanese Spindle Bush Hedge
New growth on a Japanese Spindle Bush Hedge | Source

There are a whole range of leaf colors available for this evergreen shrub. All are a soft green with either gold, white or cream variegation.

It will grow up to 15 feet tall but is easily controlled and shaped by regular trimming.

It is susceptible to significant pest problems in some areas and local advice is worth finding.

Growing Zones: 7 - 9

Yew (Taxus Species)

Topiary of Yew
Topiary of Yew | Source

Yew plants make wonderful topiary and hedges.

Hybrid Yew is a popular and quite fast growing hedge plant. It needs well-drained soil but otherwise is an easy plant to grow with very few pest issues.

There are a variety of natural growth patterns in the Yew family including very upright or spreading. If you invest the time in regular pruning, however, you can make almost any shape you wish, including the bear shown to the right.

It is evergreen and produces attractive (if poisonous) berries.

Growing Zones: 5 - 9

Holly (Iliex)

Variegated holly.
Variegated holly.

Holly is evergreen and produces attractive berries that last well into the winter. The spines make it an effective barrier against intrusion.

There are many variegated species as well as the more traditional dark green lustrous leaved forms.

You can also choose dwarf varieties for shorter hedges and less pruning.

Growing Zones: 5 - 9

Thuja Hedge

Thuja hedge
Thuja hedge

Thuja is a fast-growing conifer. It has a vivid green foliage that can survive the hottest days and the coldest, iciest nights.

It can be left to grow out into a typical conical conifer shape or trimmed to produce a formal hedge.

Growing Zones: 5 - 9

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      What is the best variety of Japanese Yew to use for a privacy hedge in the DFW area of Texas

    • profile image

      Palm Harbor Tree Service 

      3 years ago

      That was a great article. I always tell my clients that are thinking of purchasing hedging for privacy to go with a good ole Boxwood

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      6 years ago from Norfolk

      I love box hedging - we just returned from France where I went to two wonderful gardens where I saw some amazing topiary. I was particularly interested in them before I went, having just purchased sixteen small plants from auction which I intend to grow into different shapes for our newly laid patio. One of the gardens I saw in france was featured this week but the other one is still a work in progress - it featured the most amazing boxwood topiary such as a table and chairs complete with bottle of wine and a glass on the table - all in boxwood. I even saw faces on rows of hedging. Simply beautiful - Love the videos too. Thanks for sharing.


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