The maze concept fascinated me since I can first remember. Likewise, the labyrinth too, it’s the same idea. This was the place where Theseus, in the Greek myth, entered to rescue Princess Ariadne from the Minotaur. It was where Jennifer Connley ran from the Goblin King, played by David Bowie. Once past the threshold, you’re into a whole new reality.
In the middle ages, maze paths were built around Europe to illustrate the soul’s passage to the next world. Evolving from knot gardens, hedge mazes, always my favorite form, were grown in the gardens of the rich and famous. Hampton Court in England still has its famous trapezoidal one, although the one planted at Versailles was destroyed after the French Revolution.
And so, one day I decided to plant my own hedge maze.
When I first moved to my current location in Eastern Pennsylvania, my house was blocked from the street by a large hedge. The hedging material, which extended across the width of my property and down one side, was accomplished by planting a series of privet plants. I have no idea when the privet hedge was first grown, but every picture I’ve found of this house, some dating back to the 1950s, shows the hedge.
Originally, the hedge extended across the front and wrapped around between the old barn to the east and back across the hill that led down to the lower lot. I have no idea who planted it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the hedge was put in place around 1891, shortly after the house was constructed. I don’t know why the hedge is there, but my guess is privacy. Plus, if maintained, a hedge can act as a fence and give the homeowner a reasonable amount of security from trespassing humans and animals.
Privet grows fast. It likes to grow up and out, which means you’ll find yourself with a lot of tall shrubs that want to fall over in a few years. The only way to do this is to choose a location that’s level enough and drained. It likes water, but not too much.
The problem comes from trying to cut it all at once. Hedge clippers, electric, manual or gas-powered, are the best choice, but they’ll jam on the thick branches the privet shrubs toss back at you. I suspect the person who planted the hedge knew this might happen but was certain they could handle it. And that’s what I thought when I moved the hedge to a lower lot.
The purpose of this site is to let people know how they too can plant and maintain a decorative hedge maze in their yard.
However, I don’t want to hold back on the amount of maintenance you’ll need for this task. Ignore your hedge maze for a few seasons and you’ll find a mass of plants out of control and difficult to trim. Then you’ll be stuck with brush left over from the trim operation. Here’s a word of advice on that: most municipalities won’t pick up the cut branches. If they do pick them up, you’ll be charged. The brush pile will grow to the size of a mountain while you try to figure what to do with it. Although privet brush will break down from the natural process of rotting, it’s still a fire hazard if left unattended for too long.
Anyway, back to my adventures in hedge maze construction.
After a few years of trying to deal with the hedges around the front of my house, I knew something had to be done. There’s a small drop-off from the top yard to the curb. The hedges were planted at the curb level, which meant it was harder to trim them from the curbside than the yard side.
First, I tried the old manual hedge clippers as you see in the movies, but I found out that it was an exercise in futility. The privet was too thick to snip unless you employed something sharp and powerful. Also, I discovered, this applied to the lawn too. An old-fashioned rotary push mower makes little noise and has a picturesque look, but it’s a nightmare to use one without a motor. However, that’s a tale for another day.
Anyway, one day I’m sitting around on the front porch looking at the hedge at the front of my house. I was sick and tired of the work involved in cutting it down every year or so, but this had to be done. I was also sick of my red brick sidewalk. The government managed to mandate the sidewalk removal due to safety reasons. I replaced with a concrete one that I had to dig out and build frames by my lonesome, but that’s another story too, well beyond the framework of this site or article. Alas, I digress.
It hit me that the back lot, the part of the property that faced a small alley road and borough hall, was vacant. Once upon a time, there was a small outbuilding on it, but I can’t find out what purpose it served. I only know about the small building from the limestone blocks I dug out of the foundation. One big one would be used as a bench in the future hedge maze. My archaeologist son attempted to do some excavation of the site years ago, but he never found anything conclusive. He’s still not happy I filled the pit in, but it represented a possible hazard and I wasn’t about to face a lawsuit.
Back to the story. I’ve wanted my own hedge maze since I can remember. I don’t know if it was hearing about them in Europe or seeing the diagrams in books, but I wanted one for a long time. At one point, when I lived in St. Louis, I thought about buying a house that had a large front yard. I felt that if I could plant a hedge maze in that front yard and would be the perfect way to keep people away. Never would I have to deal with a door-to-door salesman. Plus, it would be cool as heck, since no one else I knew had such a thing. Of course, the sale of that house didn’t go through. A job transfer soon took me to Wichita, Kansas. Which, in the long run, was a good thing, as the area was flooded out in the early 90s when Old Man River overflowed his banks. My beautiful house would’ve turned into a submarine.
Back to the subject. I looked at my current front property and measured out the distance the hedge occupied. The task was doable. I researched the kind of plant that made up my hedge and found out that privet was a very hardy species. A bit too hardy. It’s considered an invasive species in some areas. Not as bad as bamboo but will still take over the property if allowed. I discovered the roots don’t go very deep, which made excavation very simple. And I discovered the hedge clumps could be pulled apart. This allows the prospective landscaper a chance to get a ton of shrubs out of a small row of hedging.
I discovered you needed to plant them about three feet apart to guarantee a good barrier and shield against hedge-cutters. Unlike my first idea for a hedging plant, decorative roses, privet doesn’t need too much water and won’t rip the flesh off anyone who walks too close to the hedge line.
I should also mention one of my early inspirations was the M. R. James story “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance”. In this tale by the great Edwardian writer of ghost stories, a man named Humphreys finds himself the sole heir to a country estate when it’s left to him by his reclusive antiquarian relative. The estate is found to have a dilapidated hedge maze built around some interesting statuary. The hero of the story does what he can to renovate the maze but begins to have strange nightmares concerning its original purpose. I won’t ruin the plot and say more, but the story is the reason for the name of my hedge maze: The M. R. James Memorial Maze.
After I decided that the hedge maze could be built, I went out and began to research patterns of classic maze architecture. Since the lower property has a slight incline tilting down to the alley, I knew I’d have to work against this aspect. You can’t always have the perfect landscape to do what you want, but you can make do with what you have.
My ideal maze is the one I found in one of those old Time-Life books about the sciences. In the 60s, there was a whole series of these books put out for libraries. I remember them vividly. The one on psychology was a real trip. Each book was illustrated with full-color paintings and diagrams. The book on mathematics had the diagram for a maze designed by some genius. It was almost impossible to beat. I wondered if you could build one for real. What would happen if a hardy soul found him or herself lost on the inside? Would they starve? There was no way I could possible duplicate this monstrosity, so I began to search through antiquity once again.
I tried to design a maze on my own, but this proved to be a bad idea. No manner how many times I tried to get it to work, the maze was never what I had in mind. I couldn’t find anything simple or eloquent enough to meet my expectations. I calculated that the area I had to work with was in the order of 100 feet by 100 feet, not the sort of thing that you can sell tickets for people to visit.
I spun through every resource I could find, both on the Internet and in the libraries, but nothing seemed to pop out at me. And then, on a cold and wet winter Sunday afternoon, I found it.
The pattern was one that’s been used in Ancient Greece for centuries. If you look at the borders of mosaics or wall paintings from the Mycenean age, you’ll see it represented. I knew it would work for my maze, although the pattern was closed and not exactly a maze. However, with a few modifications, it was possible to use it as the outline for a hedge maze.
Once I had the overall pattern printed out, I set to work with a tape measure and compass to work it out on the ground. I used small sticks pushed into the ground on the lower lot to mark where I wanted each shrub to be planted. After a few weeks of consulting the diagram and placing the sticks into strategic locations, I knew where to plant the hedge shrubs.
It wasn’t the final pattern. My original one had an entrance to the street and another one as the hill. This was before I discovered the water drainage patterns made a few parts of the lower lot a bad place in which to plant any kind of bush or tree. For instance, the current side wooden panel on the outer wall of the maze, near the alley, was not part of the original plan. I had to go with this option when I found out that I couldn’t plant any shrub in a spot that was submerged during a thunderstorm.
When spring arrived, I was ready to get started with my shovel and work gloves. I know it would take months to lay out the pattern, but it was something I could do with little effort and a lot of determination. I’m sure my neighbors didn’t have the slightest idea what I was up to as I dug up the original hedge line.
No, I didn’t find anything inside the hedge of value, other than a bumblebee nest that took an extreme dislike to the shovel and the man who wielded it. Note to anyone who digs into a bumblebee nest: run. They may seem slow and dumb most of the time but threaten their nest and you’ll find out what mean little cretins they can become.
After the frost had melted in the spring, I began to plant the shrubs into the pattern that best fit the landscape. I learned quickly that what was in my mind didn’t match up to the ground. As I mentioned, there is a slight tilt on the backlot, which makes it difficult to plant a true hedge maze. The ideal landscape is on flat well-drained land with no trees around. Trees allow anyone trying to find their way through the maze a reference point. As does the sun, but most people never think to use it for a reference point.
I was stuck with a piece of property that had an incline, a virtual swamp at one end and plenty of maple trees around it. I’d hoped the swampy end of the maze would disappear once the privet shrubs were in place, but this proved to be a miscalculation on my part. However, it would take the better part of the summer growing season to figure this out.
Every weekend and evening, when I had the time, I would be out there with my shovel digging up shrubs. I’d slam the blade of the shovel into the ground far enough to get it under the privet bush, then crank it back to pry the shrub out of the ground. Once I had the shrub free, I would check to see if it was a clump of shrubs. If it was, I would pull it apart until the individual privet plants were exposed. Armed with a new bush or bushes to plant, I would troop down the hill, dig a small pit at one of the many marker sticks, and plant the shrub. Once planted, I would cover the dug area with dirt. Then, if it didn’t appear to be a rainy day, I’d pour a bucket of water over the fresh planting.
Most of the time, this worked out well. I didn’t lose too many plantings this way. There were a few that never took the transplanting, but most did alright.
I will admit that more than a few plants were transferred that should’ve stayed in the ground. For some reason, mulberry trees like to work their way in between the hedge lines around here. Those things are a nightmare to extract. In several cases, I ended up digging them out of the new hedge lines when I discovered my mistake. Oak and maple trees, which are easier to spot, didn’t slip by. They’d sprout up a year or so later, but that’s another story. The price of success is eternal vigilance, someone once told me. I spend no small amount of time these days checking the hedge lines for seedlings and sprouts that aren’t supposed to be there.
One thing I didn’t do that I should’ve was to trim the shrubs down to a manageable size once I pulled them out of the ground. I thought, at the time, that anything I did to a shrub would damage it and lessen the chances of survival once transplanted. I’ve since learned that privet is considered an invasive species because it’s almost impossible to kill. In the novel Greener Than You Think by Ward Moore, the world is destroyed by a scrub grass plant that grows out of control. It takes over entire cities. I found the book fantastic when I read it. Now, after seeing what privet can do if left unattended, I find it scary.
The result was a maze of wispy, tall shrubs. It would’ve looked better had I cut them down to size and controlled the hedge lines as it grew. Which, by the way, is my current plan for the hedge maze. But I didn’t know a lot at the time about how these plants grow. I’ve seen countless hedge lines around these parts, but nothing like I’d planned.
As a matter of fact, I’ve only witnessed one hedge maze laid-out and grown to specifications. When I lived in St. Louis in 1986, the Missouri Botanical Gardens planted a hedge maze. Once it was laid-out and the shrubs in place, the public could go inside. At first, it wasn’t too impressive. But after a year, the hedges were so tall they were cut back and it was hard to see through the hedge maze line. I haven’t been there in years, but I’m sure It’s an impressive thing to see.
By the start of the fall season, I’d dug the last shrub out of the former hedge line that blocked the house from the sidewalk and street.
I’d have finished the job sooner, but one of the last shrubs I dug into contained a bumblebee nest, as previously mentioned. I heard a buzz, and then my hand felt as if a rusty nail was pounded into it. I looked down in time to see a little demon in yellow-and-black fly away. Another glance at the ground showed the rise of more yellow-and-black demons.
I waited until the frost came. This time when I dug down by the roots of the remaining privet plants, the bumbles were too dazed by the chill weather to put up a fight. It wasn’t that big of a nest, only about twenty or so pods. However, all it takes is one if you have an allergy to a bee sting (which I don’t). I advise anyone to check your hedge carefully if you see stinging wasps or bees flying around. Around these parts, ground wasps in the form of yellow jackets are known to build their little fortresses near the base of tree or shrub roots. Bumblebees attack solo, but yellow jackets will swarm all over you if provoked.
So now I had a hedge maze. I didn’t get much feedback from my neighbors, at least at the start. One man who lived a few houses down wanted to know what the heck I’d planted back there. When I explained, he rolled his eyes. Well, I had to do something with that lower lot and I’d always wanted my own hedge maze.
Originally published 9/15/2019