Plant a Wildlife Hedge Instead of Building a Fence

Here's what to plant to keep wildlife happy and the neighbors out of sight.

wildlife hedge

© Jonathan Billinger /

Benjamin Franklin famously advised, "Love your neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge." Unfortunately, hedges have generally been pulled down to make way for fences and walls; hard barriers that are often made with treated wood or plastic. They can also divide wildlife habitats and impede the flow of traffic for animals that may have traditionally crossed in the area.

Which is why the idea of a wildlife hedge is so great.

Rather than a fence or a wall, and more cottage-garden wild than a manicured topiary hedge, a wildlife hedge is much like the hedgerows of the UK. Unlike the uniform American hedge with its one type of shrub and straight lines, a hedgerow includes a variety of plants. For a wildlife hedge, think of a mix of taller and shorter species, filled with fruit for eating, and nooks and crannies for cover and nesting.

Not only will a wildlife hedge provide habitat for birds, pollinators and others, but it also assumes the services that a regular fence would, like creating privacy, noise reduction, and defining the edge of a property. And for the lazy gardeners out there, it doesn't take much work once it's up and running.

Janet Marinelli writes about wildlife hedges for the National Wildlife Foundation. She notes:

"Unlike formal hedges that must be clipped as meticulously as a poodle, the mixtures of native flowering and evergreen trees and shrubs that make up a wildlife hedge can follow their own growth habits. They are similar to classic hedgerows – long, narrow plantings of vegetation promoted in the 1930s to reduce soil erosion in the Plains states – but scaled down for urban and suburban settings."

Here is what Marinelli recommends.

Small flowering trees

Cedar waxwing eating a serviceberry

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Plant flowering trees first. She suggests shorter, understory species such as native dogwoods and serviceberries. Cedar waxwings love serviceberries (shown above) as do at least 35 species of birds who eat the fruit, including, mockingbirds, robins, catbirds, Baltimore orioles, grosbeaks, thrushes and many more. And skip the classic lollipop-shaped trees, instead opt for more natural forms to better form an interwoven wall. If you don't have room for small trees, just go for more shrubs instead.

Native shrubs

Choose a variety of native shrubs, ones that provide different kinds of wildlife treats, and that will provide throughout season. For example: "Viburnums, blueberries, hackberries, elderberries and willows provide food all season long for wildlife, from early spring bees to summer songbirds to monarch butterflies that migrate in fall. Wax myrtles, bayberries and hollies offer fruits that persist in winter."

Native evergreens, briars and brambles

Junipers and cedars provide cover for wildlife – evergreens will offer shelter year-round. In addition, Marinelli points out that things like native roses, raspberry, blackberry, salmonberry and thimbleberry do double duty by providing fruit while also offering some defense against cats and other potential predators, thanks to their tangles of thorns.

Native vines

Vines will help tie it all together, while also providing more fruit and nectar for birds and pollinators.

Remember the pollinators

Native plants for the beleaguered pollinators is a great thing to do. Marinelli suggests, "from early spring penstemons to summer milkweeds and late-fall goldenrods, flowering native perennials provide nectar for bees and butterflies as well as leaves for caterpillars to munch on."

Think of it as your own tiny wildlife preserve, offering permanent residents and visitors a place to rest and forage, or to even call home. And how much lovelier than a dumb fence – instead, it's a living thing, changing with the seasons, and alive with singing birds, flitting pollinators, and crawling creatures. Benjamin Franklin was clearly on to something.