June 2, 2011 4:23 PM   Subscribe

Why is this privet hedge dying?

The hedge is about 4' tall and consists of approximately 15 plants. They were cut back severely several years ago and grew back, but this year all the plants seem to be dying, having failed to leaf out this spring and in most places reduced to bare twigs.

The garden belongs to my parents who live in a suburb in one of the mid-Atlantic states of the USA (to localize your answers). The hedge is quite exposed; since two major trees were cut down ten years ago or so, there is little or no shade. Mulch and black tarp were laid down under the privets two years ago and the mulch was replaced last year. Three small dogwood and cherry trees were planted next to the hedge several years ago; they are still little more than saplings.

Are the privets simply not getting enough water, are the new trees competing too much, or have the privets caught a disease from the mulch, or have they reached the end of their natural lifespan (having been there as long as I can remember, +30 years)?

Should we attempt to replace them? Boxwood is not an option as my father hates the odor of boxwood.
posted by bad grammar to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
Could be so many reasons for this. A neighbor of mine had a problem with mice tunneling under the bark mulch, eating the roots.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:45 PM on June 2, 2011

I am losing my shrubs to mice or voles too. How do I know this?

Because my Jack Russell / chihuahua dog sits obsessively on the patio, staring obsessively into the shrubs, obsessively hoping against hope that he will once more see a mouse or vole run into the shrubs. Because, you know, he probably saw this happen three months ago, and it's sure to happen again....
posted by HeyAllie at 4:55 PM on June 2, 2011

Mulch is not good for plants the way most people apply it. It ends up causing a lot of root problems. All that's needed, when at all, is a thin layer. Not the 'volcano' most people make the mistake of creating. And by 'people' I mean both DIY and landscapers looking to scam customers into buying it (and paying to have it applied).

And what do you mean by 'black tarp'? Do you mean a solid sheet of polyethylene? Or the more porous weedblocking cloth? If it's a solid sheet then it's probably keeping too much water away from the roots.

I've got a house in Baltimore with a privet hedge that's been there since the 1930's. They tend to live quite a long time with little more than just trimming. I've never even watered them directly. Nor have I ever mulched or fertilized them.

Without seeing it I'd be inclined to say it would be a good idea to remove both the 'tarp' and the mulch and get a good watering regime going. Timers can be had cheaply. Set one up with a drip hose. That way the water will stay at the hedge, not sprayed all over the place.

Boxwoods are great but they're finicky about their soil conditions and are pretty slow grower. They're expensive to start with, some will not make it and it'll take years for the to come together as a hedge. Fix what you've got.

As for voles and other vermin, call a local exterminator and get some help.
posted by wkearney99 at 5:27 PM on June 2, 2011

Thank you for the suggestions. The tarp has small holes but it is likely not enough water is getting through. The yard does have moles or voles (they leave holes though we have never seen them). I will suggest that they remove the mulch and tarp and water frequently.

I also wonder if cutting back the dead wood would be a good idea (there are no leaves, and it could be infested).
posted by bad grammar at 6:14 PM on June 2, 2011

Privets can be cut all the way back to the ground and they will come back from the roots. I know, because I have tried to kill mine by doing this. Still, they live.

I'm in the midwest and it seems like they get killed off by the weather every other year or so. They usually recover by mid to late summer.
posted by Ostara at 7:03 PM on June 2, 2011

Also, is the tarp breathable landscape fabric or plastic? If plastic, I would take it up. Plastic actually encourages weeds to sprout up in the holes/tears (and it will tear) because of the heat that it generates. It also prevents the soil from breathing and it prevents water from reaching the roots. A good mulch is adequate, landscape plastic/fabric is a waste of money.
posted by Ostara at 7:07 PM on June 2, 2011

There was just an episode of Ask This Old House on PBS dealing with a Privet. One note they made was that an improperly trimmed Privet will often leaf out on top and choke sunlight to the interior -- thus, you will end up with a lot bare branches on the interior. It was also noted on that episode that using a proper trimmer will cut the branches neatly allowing them to quickly grow back, but that sloppy cuts (the example was cutting them with a chainsaw) would create a rough end that could result in rotting at the messy cut.

WIthout seeing an image it is tough to say, but you should check that out if you can find it and see if it aligns with any of what you are seeing. It was the most recent episode of Ask This Old House (saw it last night).
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 8:26 PM on June 2, 2011

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