In my backyard, hedges of a plant known as privet have naturally grown up framing a fence around which weeds are just a bit harder to trim. In six years time, I've seen these plants grow from wee sprigs to full sized-bushes. Many southerners have witnessed the emergence of a "volunteer" privet hedge. The question is, what ought one to do with it?
The decision to remove a privet hedge is a difficult one. After all, privet does a lot of nice things for us. It gives us privacy from our neighbors, cuts down on noise pollution from the street, and cools our houses in summer by reducing wind and transpiration of groundwater through its leaves. In some ways, privet is also beneficial to city wildlife. A privet hedge provides a small greenway for animals to live in. The shrubs also feed pollinators with their Spring flowers and birds with their winter berries.
It's these berries that make privet a problem, however. Birds love them so much that they can quickly spread privet to places where it is not wanted through their droppings. This tendency for rapid spreading wouldn't be a problem if privet were a native plant because it would have native pests and predators to keep it in check. Because privet is from Eurasia, however, it is almost completely unchallenged in its growth and reproduction. Privet is a serious ecological problem particularly in the southeastern United States, where it crowds out other understory plants in what remains of our forest land.
The benefits of a privet hedge can also be achieved with native plants, particularly with native hollies. Two species are of particular use in the South: the American holly and the yaupon holly. American holly looks much like the European Holly that is traditionally associated with winter holidays. It is much easier to control than privet, grows much taller but can also be kept short, and provides an added measure of security with its sharp-tipped leaves. Yaupon holly doesn't look like what we think hollies should look like, with small, round leaves instead of large, pointed leaves. It is a true holly, however, with the small flowers and autumn berries we expect from these plants. The yaupon holly, also called ilex vomitoria because of its use in inducing vomiting by native Americans, takes very well to pruning, but needs much less than a privet, giving its caretakers compact growth without much care. Of course, it looks just great without pruning too. Yaupon hollies come in various forms, from a stately 20-foot variety that grows handsome trunks in its maturity to a mid-sized weeping variety to a small version that grows only to about 3 or 4 feet.
Although they are a standby of Southern landscaping, it is time for the privet hedges to go. Remember to wait until cool weather comes along to put in your replacement plants, though. If you introduce your hollies in the Fall, their roots will have a good chance to establish themselves before the blast heat of the next summer forces the plant to use as much water as possible. Late summer is a good time to cut back and dig out the privets. Whatever you do, DON'T KILL THEM WITH HERBICIDES! These same chemicals will make it difficult for your new plants to grow, will poison the water in your yard, and just might give you and your family cancer. A saw, a shovel, a pair of pruning shears, and a wheelbarrow will take care of the old hedge and get your muscles in fine shape to boot. Responsible landscaping isn't just good for the wildlife in your neighborhood, it's good for you too.
Visit our Irregular Goods store for fun green goods like this.