About eight years ago, when my wife and I were expecting our second child, we moved from a co-op in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to the 1930s Tudor-style bungalow that we live in now, near Green-Wood Cemetery. Garden-wise, it meant graduating from window boxes and a shared plot in front of the building to a backyard, a front yard, and a terrace. Site-wise, though, we went from a quiet brownstone block to a main access road to the Prospect Expressway.
Moving there, I was somewhat surprised by the traffic. The street is often quiet, but at certain times the road is heavily trafficked: Contractors drive SUVs to worksites; a decades-old shuttle bus sputters by en route from Borough Park to Williamsburg; and 18-wheelers take it as a shortcut to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As I headed out to work on weekday mornings, I’d step through my front door and look down from my stoop to a line of drivers glancing up at me as they waited for the light to change. My house had few curtains, which I saw as an uptight sacrifice of light for privacy, and I had long viewed hedging in the same vein. That attitude changed pretty quickly, however, and I began to look for a horticultural means to keep from being the star of my own reality show.
My first attempt to solve the problem was to buy two yews (Taxus × media ‘Hicksii’) for $25 each from a local garden center. Evergreen, tolerant of the stresses of urban life, forgiving when pruned, ‘Hicksii’ seemed to be the model shrub for my Brooklyn neighborhood.
“Before you know it, they’ll be huge,” I told my wife. “We’ll have a little archway to walk under.” I should have known better. After a summer of record rains, the yews had grown barely six inches, to just over two feet tall. At this rate, it would take ten years to get a privacy-size proscenium. And—in a manifestation of that curious phenomenon of reading about a cultural trend in the morning and then witnessing it, repeatedly, all afternoon—the more I struggled with the yews in my front yard, the more I became aware of that particular cultivar planted everywhere: wild and woolly specimens by a playground in Central Park; a row of squat, shaved cupcakes along a driveway a few blocks away; a single aged, malformed specimen outside a corner pizza parlor. When I approached my wife with my misgivings about the time, effort, and payoff with these plants, she said, shockingly, “I never liked them.” I dug them out, chopped them up, and threw them on the compost heap.
Autumn is a more forgiving season than summer to plant shrubs, so I knew the year was not lost. I decided to try something different: pleaching. If ‘Hicksii’ yews are hedging’s lowest common denominator, then pleaching has to be its most elegant prime number. This painstaking horticultural technique of intertwining branches of trees to make a hedge has been practiced since Roman times. Pleaching requires so much time and care that historically it has signaled great wealth, much in the way Park Avenue prewar buildings rotate the ostentatiously crowded plantings in their street tree beds every other month.
Pleaching demands a level of arcane knowledge and exercises a degree of difficulty that greatly appealed to both the nerd and the macho gardener in me. First, the nerd: The best trees to pleach are those that naturally graft, or inosculate, such as lindens, hornbeams, and beeches. Trained along a framework so that the branches form a living fence, the resulting tunnels, fences, or allées were probably grown because they are clearly so difficult to achieve. Next the macho: I could be the first person in my neighborhood—hell, probably in all of Brooklyn!—to pleach.
As with the yews, the moment I was turned on to the art of pleaching, I saw it everywhere: at a chateau in Belgium, where I’d gone for my brother’s wedding; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s room-size panoramic painting of Versailles, for a few seconds in a Merchant Ivory movie. I started by mail-ordering three native American beeches (Fagus grandifolia). Three healthy twigs that set me back about $20 each, the beeches would grow thick, gray trunks and hold their large copper leaves in fall.
When the trees arrived, I planted them along the boundary of my tiny front yard and pulled out my copy of the Royal Horticultural Society Pruning & Training, a Dorling Kindersley guidebook published in London. (For a while I worked in DK’s New York office, “Americanizing” its publications, so my library of gardening books is primarily made up of leftover publicity samples.) The mostly straightforward DK books often include at least one abstruse English gardening practice: how to “blet” medlars (letting the fruits of an unpalatable, hard fruit rot until they can be bitten into) or coppice hazel hedgerows (cutting the trees back into stumps every year so that you can use the whiplike spring branches in basketmaking).
One evening, my wife glanced over my shoulder at the heavy book, scanned the pleaching entry, and read aloud, in her best Miss Marple accent, “A strong and well-constructed framework is needed until the row is fully established.... This may be about 15 years.”
Though at opposite ends of the spectrum of horticultural difficulty, pleaching a row of beeches and plopping a couple of yews in the ground had one thing in common: Both took too much time before they looked good. If I wanted my privacy, I needed results in a season or two.
Winter came and I put the problem aside for a while. In the spring, I was sent to Bologna, Italy, for a trade show. In terms of climate, Bologna is much like Washington, DC, with an enviable early, flowery spring. The smallish city gardens squeezed several plants closely together, often of upward-growing or fastigiate forms: southern magnolia, with huge, brown-felted leaves; redbud, with tiny flowers that grow right on the bark; oleander, notoriously toxic but splendidly tropical in bloom; blue atlas cedar, with gangly evergreen branches. The gardens weren’t tightly shielded by a single species; rather they gave privacy by distracting the viewer through their profusion and variety.
Just when my hunt for the perfect hedge was starting to seem hopeless, I came upon a solution. Every summer, my large extended family goes on a one-week vacation to Long Beach Island, on the Jersey shore. We all cram into a big, dumpy rental house, and by week’s end, vow to do it differently the next year. With my hedge radar working overtime, I saw that many of the beach houses along the busy boulevards had natural hedges of native plants like American holly (Ilex opaca), pitch pine (Pinus rigida), and bayberry (Morella species), alongside naturalized plants like Rosa rugosa. The hedges weren’t very wide and didn’t completely hide the houses, but they were adequate to distract passersby, were easy to maintain, and provided flowers and wildlife habitat. Here was the local adaptation of the approach I had seen in Bologna.
Returning to my small front yard in Brooklyn, I was inspired. I built my first layer of screening with a series of native plants: a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), which has lemon-scented flowers in spring; two Hamamelis shrubs, a vernal witch hazel and a common witch hazel, which have curious crinkled, fragrant flowers in spring and fall, respectively; a hawthorn, Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’, a cultivar famous for its persistent, bright red fruit; my nod to Bologna, a fastigiate red maple (Acer rubrum ‘Red Rocket’), which has tiny, elegant red flowers in early spring that are invisible unless you look for them; and the accurately named ‘Ruby Spice’ summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), a fragrant, late-summer bloomer that is beloved by butterflies. Not only are these plants native, but they’re what gardeners like to call hard-working—flowering at an unusual time or with special fragrance. Hypothetically, people could peer through the tangle of branches in winter, but they just don’t, so I didn’t have to resort to a triffid-like curtain of Leyland cypresses.
Where the yard meets the sidewalk, I put in a few rambling and climbing roses, which get compliments from my neighbors for about two weeks each June before turning into a green veil. Between the sidewalk and the street, the city planted a hybrid elm. It wouldn’t have been my first choice of tree—it’s little more than a giant weed, having grown taller than our house in less than ten years, but it’s our front line against expressway-bound traffic, and it’s become a home for sparrows.
The last thing I planted, which I stuck into the ground right next to the elm, was a forsythia. A friend offered a piece to me, and although forsythia is nonnative, sprawling, and common as weeds, I love this trashy interloper with its bright yellow April bells because it reminds me of the very first hedge I ever planted. I was 11 years old, and my dad and I dug holes for about a dozen two-foot twigs, which came wrapped in skinny cellophane bags from a discount store. It seems that I waited for years for those sticks to grow, to look like more than a gap-toothed picket fence, to flower more densely and outrageously yellow. And then one day they did.
So now my hedge is complete, and although it doesn’t follow a consistent plan—with natives for the wildlife, ornamentals for my neighbors, and one very sentimental plant for my dad—I like it that way. And so, at last, does my wife.