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Originally published Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 12:17 AM

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Plant Life

Hedgerows offer variety and shelter to urban gardens

The classic English hedgerow can be adapted to modern urban and suburban gardens just fine, helping add color and texture to smaller gardens while also giving shelter to birds, bees, butterflies and more.

A FAMILY OF California quail has already set up residency in Lee Neff's year-old hedgerow. Both privacy screen and wildlife haven, this 200-foot-long living fence is a tapestry of contrasting colors and textures.

"When I was researching old English hedgerows, I was surprised to learn they spaced plants only 4 to 6 inches apart so they'd knit together quickly," says Neff. The shrubs and small trees in her own hedgerow are spaced at a more reasonable 2 to 3 feet apart to give plants space to breathe and develop their own shapes, yet still intermingle. Though loose and informal, the hedgerow lends a sense of enclosure to Neff's Hansville garden. She's aiming for an eventual width of 8 or 9 feet, and a height of 10 to 12 feet.

Such a scale might seem daunting to urban and suburban gardeners, but hedgerows, by their very nature, are endlessly variable and can be shaped to suit different spaces and situations. While classic hedgerows of trees and shrubs are often too bulky for city gardens, the idea of mixed hedging translates beautifully to a smaller scale.

A well-planned hedgerow is the most multi-tasking of features, which is vital in gardens where every square inch counts. Hedgerows offer sorely needed food and shelter for wildlife in sterile suburban or crowded city settings. And because the rule of thumb is one-third deciduous plants to two-thirds evergreens, they enrich our gardens with seasonal change. When the plants grow in, they weave together so tightly you can't tell where one leaves off and another begins. This makes mature hedgerows secure borders, especially if you throw a few barberries or other prickly plants into the mix.

I started thinking about the value of city hedgerows when a designer friend told me how an urban client had nixed her suggestion of a huckleberry hedge. The designer was hankering to see a pruned huckleberry hedge that flowered in spring, burst with berries in summer, then flamed red in autumn. You can imagine the designer's disappointment when her client chose to plant boxwood instead. Just think if the client had taken a chance with the huckleberries, and perhaps mixed in oakleaf hydrangeas for bold leaf and summer bloom. And maybe added mahonia for fragrant winter flowers, and evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) for yet more berries and year-round foliage. The effect would be lovely, productive and practical in all seasons, and so much more noteworthy and wildlife-friendly than boxwood.

Every plant in Lee Neff's hedgerow was chosen for contrasting shape, texture and color as well as drought tolerance and tenacity. Neff loves the small, upright cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas 'Golden Glory') as a centerpiece of any mixed hedge group. She planted native garrya for winter interest, lots of cistus, viburnum, hollies and our fragrant native mock orange, Philadelphia lewisii.

To learn more about which native plants work best in hedgerows, I turned to wildlife biologist Russell Link's old standby, "Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest" (University of Washington Press, $29.95). His chapter on hedgerows is truly modern in its practical, earth-friendly approach. He points out that a hedgerow can produce food for humans as well as wildlife if you mix in a few semi-dwarf fruit trees as well as huckleberries.

What about Link's own garden on Whidbey Island? Three years ago he planted a 300-foot-long hedgerow to shelter bees, butterflies, songbirds, rabbits and browsing deer. And for those of us who don't have so much space? "In urban areas, I've planted evergreen huckleberry, barberry, Oregon grape, flowering currant, native mountain ash, spireas, escallonia and wax myrtle . . . Just stay away from wild roses and thimbleberry," he advises. To keep down maintenance, Link mulches well and installed drip irrigation.

"Right now the snowberries are merging in to make a delightful tapestry of colorful fruits," he says. "The same thing happens with flowers throughout the growing season."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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