s a gardener, fred watson is self-taught,
and his practice has been largely limited
to the 170-acre parcel of New Hampshire
woods and fields around the 18th-century
farmhouse his partner, Robert Beck, bought as a summer
retreat four and a half decades ago. Working outside the
mainstream, Watson has discovered, can have its advan-
tages. He wasn’t taught how unhip hedges are in contem-
porary garden design, and the unconventional way in which
he has interpreted this very conventional garden feature
has created a landscape of unusual drama and power.
Hedges weren’t Watson’s first or only interest. He
tried farming strawberries with some success, but New
Hampshire’s White Mountain summers aren’t sunny
enough to fully ripen most types, and the various alpine
species he collected on trips to New Zealand and New-
foundland couldn’t cope with the summertime drought.
He experimented with perennial flowers but increasingly
found that it was the aesthetic potential of trees that fas-
cinated him. “They [the trees] get better all the time, and
the perennial beds don’t,” he says. “I love to see the flow-
ers, but the trees are the long term.” Besides, they offer
special opportunities for connecting the garden to its
wooded surroundings and, when disciplined with shears,
for integrating architecture and nature with personal
Hedges have defined the spaces of great landscapes,
from Julius Caesar’s villa to Thomas Jefferson’s Monti-
cello, but with the rise in fashion of “natural” landscapes,
they have fallen into disfavor. A clipped hedge is about as
appealing as bound feet to today’s gardeners. It is Wat-
son’s genius to make the barbered greenery feel liberating
rather than restrictive: His dramatic, sculpted surfaces are
unconstrained by any degree of predictability.
Successful hedge making lies in the choice of plants.
Typically, hedge species lay down dormant buds in their
bark or wood as they grow. These buds remain inactive
unless some injury removes the growing tips, at which
point the sleepers awaken to produce new growth that
replaces what has been lost. The presence of such buds
means that when sheared into some artificial shape, the
tree responds by covering the cut surfaces with green.
Arborvitaes and yews are traditional favorites for
clipped hedges, as are hollies. In making his first hedge,
however, Watson chose to work with the eastern hemlock
Tips for hedge care
• Using stakes and
string, lay out the
line (or lines) of the
hedge, then dig a
trench equal in depth
to the roots of the
plants and twice as
• Use seedling plants
(if possible) rather
than plants of a
clone. Native species
adapt easily when
similar soil and
• Space the plants 18
to 30 inches apart,
depending on the
vigor of the species
and what you
envision as the
eventual height of
• Trim hedges in late
spring after the first
flush of new growth
and as necessary
thereafter to maintain
a neat, sculpted look.
A pair of sharp hand
hedge shears (A),
lopping shears (B) for
the thickest branches,
gives the best cut.
For trimming the top
of tall hedges, use a
long-handled cut-and-hold pruner (C).
facing page: 1. deer nibbled the lower foliage from this file
of arborvitaes and Watson enhanced the effect with his shears.
2. The hornbeam hedge forms a pair of semicircles that mark
the farthest reaches of rotating sprinklers. 3. With a sculptor’s
eye, Watson creates his artful hedges. 4. An elegant palisade of
carefully placed and shaped Bradford pears stands by the barn.
5. The boxwoods Watson planted are not reliably winter hardy,
so steel hoops serve as supports for a temporary greenhouse
through the colder months. 6. Apple trees onto which Watson
grafted branches from antique varieties provided him with raw
material for a living latticework fence.
(Tsuga canadensis) he found in the woods all around him. It
has the essential dormant buds — and was free and nearly
unlimited. There also was an inadvertent benefit. Horticultural wisdom prescribes planting a hedge with just one
cultivar, ideally one that is a clone, so that all the plants
are genetically identical. That way, all the plants in the
hedge will have a similar appearance and growth rate. In
contrast, the seedlings Watson collected, because they
were the result of spontaneous crosses between different
parent trees, were genetically different from one another.
This gave the planting a closer visual link to the surrounding landscape: His less uniform hedge looks at home on
the land because it is at home. And such genetic diversity
endows a planting with resilience and adaptability.
Watson’s hedges are wider, in cross section, at the
base than at the top. As a result, sunlight can reach all
the needles and leaves, so the lower branches grow as vigorously as the upper ones. And having abandoned right
angles in the profile, Watson began to wonder: Why follow straight lines at all?
Consider the row of 150 European hornbeams (
Car-pinus betulus) at the end of the lawn creating a transition from turf to meadow. Hornbeams maintain a thick
growth of foliage down to the ground, lending a satisfying
impression of solidity. What captures the eye, though, is
the upper surface, which undulates up and down in a series
of graceful curves. The plants themselves, Watson says,
dictated the roller-coaster scrollwork. A plant that grew
more slowly than its neighbors became a dip in the hedge,
one that grew faster became a peak. Where a shrub died,
he let the plants on either side extend their branches and
clipped them in curved slopes to frame a plunge.
And why should a hedge be only linear? Why not let it
travel in several directions at the same time? For that, he
returned to native plants, specifically the hemlock seedlings he trained into a conjoined pair of green obelisks that
he wrapped around a garden corner adjacent to the house.
The maintenance of this living architecture requires
a good eye and a sure hand. Watson eschews power hedge
clippers because they grind up branches with a ragged cut
that is unsightly and fosters disease. A sharp pair of hand
shears gives a clean cut, and a slip with this tool doesn’t
have the disastrous consequences that mishandling a
power trimmer is likely to have. Hand trimming takes longer, but the results are more satisfying.
Many would posit that a garden so green must be
monotonous. For Watson, the subtler beauties of his
hedged landscape are “fantastic, especially [in spring]
when everything is brilliant green.” There are endless
variations in the color, not only between species, but in
his seedling-spawned hedges, also between the individual plants. He savors the patterns of light and shade that
change over the course of the day and with the seasons, the
patterns of the trunks and the different profiles of the trees,
some narrow and fastigiate, others broad and spreading.
Fred Watson does not miss the flowers at all.