Fence Foliage

The sweet old lady has moved out of her house at the bottom of our back yard. In her place are young people. Young people with tattoos; young people with a band that practices in the garage; young people who hang out on the back patio next to our shared fence, smoking and drinking and having intense conversations. I have nothing against young people; it wasn't so long ago that I was a young person myself. But I'm not too keen on my little ones picking up on the rock 'n' roll lifestyle before they hit puberty. I'm thinking it might be time for something more than a chain-link fence. I'm thinking about a hedge, something that would keep us from seeing quite so much of each other. I made my checklist: fast-growing, low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, about eight to ten feet high, and reasonably priced. (That back fence is about 100 feet across.) Then I started calling around. Andy at Walter Anderson's Nursery in Poway (858-513-4900) was ready for me. "There are a couple of plants that are very commonly used as hedges. One of them is ligustrum, or Texas privet [one-gallon, $7.99 ; five-gallon, $29.99 ]. Remember the hedge in The Shining ? That was privet. It has a real formal look and can be squared up with sharp corners very easily. It doesn't grow that much in the cool season, but in the spring and summer, it'll put out a lot of growth -- about two or three feet a year."

Item one on my list was covered; what about the rest? "Privet is a good dark green all the time, with a three-inch teardrop-shaped leaf. It has a very structured blooming season; from right about now to early summer, you get a small cluster of white flowers. You can plant them at any time of year, but you generally want to avoid planting in the heat of summer. Plant them four feet apart, and plant them the way you would plant anything else: dig a hole that's half again to twice as big as the root ball, and fill in the extra space with a 50-50 mix of the original dirt and planting mix. When you first plant the hedge, you need to water it three times a week. But once they're established -- say, after a couple of months -- you can take the water down to once a week."

Even faster growing than the privet was "Eugenia, the Australian brush cherry [five-gallon, $34.99 ]. That'll give you 4 feet a year. Most people keep them at around 10 feet high, but they'll get up to 20 feet. They have a cool mix of red and green within their leaves; the new growth has a lot of red in it. It doesn't get much in the way of pests anymore, but there was an epidemic of psyllid about two years ago. The pest was burrowing into the new growth and making the leaves curl. The agricultural department released a natural predator, and that pretty much took care of the problem."

So much for the common; what about the unusual? "Escallonia [one-gallon, $5.99 ; five-gallon, $22.99 ] grows as fast and as tall as Eugenia, but it's not as drought tolerant. It gets clusters of pink flowers that bloom mostly in spring and a little bit throughout the year. It also has an edible red berry -- some people like the taste; I just think they're very nice-looking."

The salesclerk at Mission Hills Nursery (619-295-2808) suggested pittosporum. "The nicest one is the 'silver sheen' [five-gallon, $35-$40 ], a shimmery plant with a small, green flower. You can keep it trimmed into a hedge shape or just let it grow naturally and billowy. It'll get up to 25 feet, and it's moderate- to fast-growing. It'll double its size in 12 to 18 months." I liked the idea of just letting it go but wasn't sure I was up to spending quite that much. I kept looking.

Kniffing Discount Nursery in El Cajon (619-561-0611) suggested another pittosporum, the boxwood [five gallon, $6.95 ]. "It's got a nice, green, semi-glossy leaf," said the clerk. "And it's low maintenance."

"Texas privet is as common as the day is long," said Chris Wotruba at Perennial Adventures in La Mesa (619-660-9631). "Eugenia still has that psyllid that crinkles the leaves. Boxwood is slow growing. Escallonia -- not bad, but it needs part shade inland or the leaves will burn." So much for that one -- my hedge was destined for full sun. I was eager to hear her suggestions -- Wotruba tends one of the most fantastic SoCal gardens I've ever seen. "Podocarpus," she said. "Fern pine. There are oodles of things you can do with them. I use mine as a hedge. You can grow azaleas underneath it, and I have a rose growing through it. It'll take any soil, and it can have full sun or part shade. You have to top it about once a year at whatever height you want it, or it can eventually become a tree. You can get them in five-gallon containers for $20 , or, if you want it immediately, a 15-gallon container is $40 ." I was tempted. Most five-gallon hedge plants needed to be planted every four feet. Podocarpus needed only one every eight feet, making it a more economical choice.

"Another one I like is duranta [five-gallon, $20 ]. It's fast growing, self-sufficient once established, and it has no bugs. I like the variegated one. It grows into a 20-foot small tree with blue flowers. You can hedge it off, or let it grow like a whole series of trees."

Finally, Wotruba suggested I consider a vine -- something that would wind up through the chain link and make a screen. "It would top out about a foot above the fence. A flame vine has big orange flowers. The passiflora, or 'passion vine,' has big, round flowers in pink, white, or blue. Butterflies love that one." Five-gallon vines are $25 .

NOTA BENE: Evergreen Nursery ( www.evergreennursery.com ), with locations in Carmel Valley, Spring Valley, Oceanside, and Escondido, had the lowest prices around on many of the aforementioned plants.

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