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Spiny shrubs and trees have been used for many hundreds of years to create defensive barriers; either as hedging, to pen livestock into their fields, or by using a plant's climbing and defensive properties to improve an existing boundary, such as a timber fence or prevent graffiti being applied to a plain wall. The only problem with using nature's evolved defensive arsenal is that we have to be a little patient for the results. But when these plants have reached maturity they can present the most formidable barriers.

Over the past four years my neighbour has trained an old English rambling rose over the entire back fence of her garden.  It’s now so well established that there is no way on earth that anybody is going to be able to get into her garden over that fence.  The thorns are vicious and copious; it’s simply impenetrable.  The nice thing about it, of course, is that during the summer she is rewarded with abundant, fragrant flowers.   There is a slight downside to this living barrier, which is the fact that she does have to prune it from time to time to keep it tidy and to stop it invading her neighbours’ gardens.  But, if given the choice I’m sure we would always choose a prickly shrub over barbed wire or razor tape.

When my friend and colleague Heather Alston and I wrote our crime prevention book,  Home Security – the complete handbook , we were fortunate to get some help from Writtle Agricultural College in Essex.  They produced three tables of plant species that could be used for crime prevention purposes.  The first two tables below list prickly/spiny plants, which can be used for hedging or climbing onto a wall or fence.  The third table lists a number of trees including many whose growth characteristics enable them to be used in circumstances where views through the trees and shrubs are necessary.  I have since updated this information, but remember that the examples given are just a sample of the many thousands of plants that you can use for practical crime prevention.  If you have your own favourites, let me know about them and I’ll add them to the lists. 

Shrubs

Please note that the effectiveness of these plants will wholly depend on how you use them.  Ground cover pricklies are used to keep people away from things or make people walk along a particular route, some are shrubs/small trees that can be used for hedging barriers and some are for growing over walls and fences to make climbing impossible or at least very difficult.  Do also bear in mind that there are thousands of injuries in the garden each year and some of these are eyes injuries caused by weeding around and pruning spiny shrubs.  So do wear goggles in these circumstances and put covers on the top of supporting sticks – another cause of eye injuries. 

Examples of defensive plants  

KEY

 

GRADE

 

D

Deciduous

1

Extremely effective

E

Evergreen

2

Very effective

SE

Semi-evergreen

3

Effective

 

KEY

GRADE

GENUS

SPECIES

CULTIVAR

DEFENSIVE PROPERTIES

 

HEIGHT

(m)

 

Berberis

All Berberis are spiny and make excellent barrier hedges.  Many of the deciduous varieties have good autumn colour, flowers and berries

D

3

Berberis group

carminea

Buccaneer

Rounded shrub

1.2

D

3

Berberis

x ottawensis

Purpurea

Purple-leaved upright shrub

1.8

D

2

Berberis group

carminea

Pirate King

Erect dense branches, difficult to penetrate

1.2

D

2

Berberis

thunbergii

Atropurpurea

A vigorous, purple-leaved shrub

1.2

D

2

Berberis

thunbergii

Red Chief

Wine-coloured foliage on upright branches

1.5

D

3

Berberis

thunbergii

Rose Glow

Mottled purple-, pink- and white-leaved shrub

1.2

SE

3

Berberis

wilsonea

 

A semi-evergreen, dense shrub

1.2

E

2

Berberis

darwinii

 

A popular and very thorny shrub

2

E

1

Berberis

gagnepainii

 

A large thorny shrub with razor-sharp leaves

1.5

E

1

Berberis

julianae

 

Long, three-armed spines and sharp leaves

2.7

E

1

Berberis

x stenophylla

 

Virtually impenetrable thicket of arched, spined branches

1.8

E

2

Berberis

verruculosa

 

A sturdy shrub with spiny leaves

1.2

D

3

Chaenomeles

speciosa

 ' Jet Trail ' (Japanese Quince)

A thorn-bearing shrub with white flowers that is often wall trained

2

E

1

Colletia

paradoxa

 

A very thorny shrub, with scented white flowers

1.5

SE

3

Corokia

cotoneaster

 

From New Zealand, a tangle of branches

1

D

1

Crataegus

monogyna (hawthorn)

 

Native to Britain this shrub or tree is ideal for a hedge barrier. White flowers

7+ (tree)

D

2

Crataegus

oxycantha (Syn. laevigata)

‘Pauls Scarlet’

Similar to monogyna with double red flowers. Commonly grown as a tree

9+ (tree)

D

1

Crataegus

prunifolia

 

Grown as a shrub or tree with very strong and abundant thorns

3.5 (tree)

D

1

Elaeagnus

augustifolia

Russian Olive

A fast growing, spiny shrub with scented flowers

2

E

2

Elaeagnus

x ebbingei

' Limelight

A dense evergreen shrub with fragrant flowers

2

E

3

Elaeagnus

pungens

Maculata

Less vigorous that x ebbingei, but variegated gold and green leaves

3+

SE

2

Genista

hispanica (Spanish gorse)

 

A low-growing dense shrub with yellow flowers .  Requires dry soil and sun

1

SE

3

Genista

aetnensis (Mount Etna Broom)

 

Taller than hispanica, but less dense with yellow flowers

1.4

D

1

Hippophae

rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn)

 

A wind- and salt-tolerant dense shrub.  A good deterrent plant for poor soils

2

E

3

Ilex

x altaclarensis

Golden King

Ideal for defensive hedging with gold-edged leaves, but no berries

 

E

2

Ilex

aquifolium (Common Holly)

 

Native to Britain and ideal for barrier plantings.  Grows on most soil types

2

E

3

Ilex

aquifolium

Argentea Marginata

A slower growing holly with good berries

1.5

E

3

Ilex

aquifolium

Golden Queen

Male golden-variegated holly, but no berries

 

E

3

Mahonia

aquifolium

 ' Apollo '

A low growing shrub with spiny leaves

1.2+

E

2

Mahonia

x media

Charity

A relatively taller hybrid with sharper leaves and better shape

1.5+

E

3

Olearia

macrodonta (New Zealand Holly)

 

A useful shrub for exposed sites, with silver-toothed leaves and fragrant flowers

1.5

D

2

Poncirus

trifoliate (Crown of Thorns)

 

Slow growing impenetrable shrub with scented flowers.  Prefers good, dry soil

1.8

D

1

Prunus

spinosa (Blackthorn, Sloe)

 

Native to Britain, this is an excellent dense defensive shrub or small tree.  Produces sloe berries

1.8

E

1

Pyracantha

coccinea  (Firethorn)

Many varieties

Bushy, spiny shrub with orange/red berries

Up to 2.5

E

1

Pyracantha

coccinea

‘Mojave’

A bushy, spiny shrub with red berries

2.5

D

2

Rhamnus

frangula (Alder Buckthorn)

 

Native to Britain, a vigorous growing shrub ideal for wet, peaty soils

1.5

SE

3

Ribes

speciosum

 

A dense, spiny bush with fuchsia-like flowers

1.2

D

3

Robinia

hispida

Rosea

Sparsely-branched, but thorny shrub, which is good on walls.  Pink flowers

 

 

Rosa

There are over 400 varieties within the Rosa family. The following listed shrub varieties are most suited for defensive planting. Not all climbing and rambling roses are suitable as some are thornless, e.g. R. ‘Zephirine Drouhin’.

D

2

Rosa

R

officinalis

 

The Lancaster rose.  Red flowers

1.2

D

2

Rosa

R

moyesii

Geranium

A very thorny  tall shrub rose with pitcher-shaped hips and red flowers

2

D

3

Rosa

R

moyesii

‘Ballerina’

A ground cover rose.  Pink flowers

 

D

2

Rosa

R

moyesii

‘Dunwich Rose’

A very vigorous ground cover rose.  White flowers

 

D

2

Rosa

R

rugosa (many available)

‘Blanc de Coubert’

Very spiny stems with large flowers.  White flowers

1.5

D

2

Rosa

R

rugosa

‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’

Very spiny stems with large flowers.  Pink flowers

 

D

2

Rosa

R

rugosa

‘Sarah van Fleet’

Very spiny stems with large flowers.  Pink flowers

 

D

2

Rosa

R

rugosa

‘Emily Gray’

A vigorous rambler with double scented flowers.  Gold flowers

3

D

2

Rosa

R

 

Albertine

A vigorous rambler ideal for growing on south facing walls and fences. 3m spread

5

D

2

Rosa

C

 

‘Guinée’

A strong climber.  Scarlet flowers

3

D

2

Rosa

C

 

‘Leaping Salmon’

Ideal for climbing pergolas, arches, along fences.  1.8m spread  Medium pink flowers

3

 

D

2

Rosa

C

 

School Girl

Disease resistant. Orange apricot flowers

3.6

D

2

Rosa

C

 

‘Allen Chandler’

A vigorous climber.  Dark red flowers

9

D

2

Rosa

C

 

‘Breath of Life’

2.2m spread.  Apricot pink flowers

2.8

D

2

Rosa

C

 

‘High Hopes’

2.2m spread.  Pink yellow flowers

3

D

1

Rubus

cockburnianus

 

Tall, spine covered, whitewashed stems forming a wall of thorns.  Quick to establish on most soils

 

E

3

Smilax

aspera

 

A prickly climber for walls and fences, however quite rare

 

E

1

Ulex

europaeus (Common Goarse)

 

Native to Britain this is a superb barrier shrub, which will grow well on poor dry soils

1.5

E

1

Ulex

europaeus

‘Plenus’

As above, but with double yellow flowers

 

Source: Updated using information kindly supplied by Writtle Agricultural College Chelmsford Essex, which first appeared in ‘Home Security- the complete handbook’ by Calvin Beckford and Heather Alston, published by New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd  © 2005  The Crime Prevention Website © 2011  

Top ten climbers

Writtle Agricultural College listed the following ten climbers because they are very prickly, have exceptionally vigorous growth and are immensely suitable for growing against old trees and for covering walls and fences.  Do some more research before you buy one to ensure that the one you get is suitable in terms of soil requirements and aspect.  Think very carefully before you allow a rose to climb over a shed roof as the spines can puncture the felt and cause leaks. (My neighbour’s rose did it to my shed!)

Top ten climbing and rambling roses

NAME

GROWTH CHARACTERISTICS

FLOWER CHARACTERISTICS

ONCE or REPEAT FLOWERING

HEIGHT

(m)  

American Pillar

Vigorous tough growing rambler with numerous long and slender branches

Non fragrant pink with white eyes in large clusters

Once

6+

Compassion

Vigorous growth, disease resistant and generally an easy rose to grow

Very fragrant large double pink to apricot blooms

Repeat

4+

Danse du Feu

Vigorous growth and ideal for North facing wall or fence

Non fragrant bright orange-scarlet

Repeat

4

Iceberg

A popular vigorous growing climber

Slightly fragrant clusters of white blooms

Repeat

4

Ginger Syllabub

A vigorous growing climber

Very fragrant golden apricot flowers

Repeat

3

Golden Showers

A vigorous growing climber

Quite fragrant light yellow flowers

Repeat

3

New Dawn

Vigorous disease free growth

Very fragrant medium sized  silvery-pink double flowers in large clusters

Repeat

4

Wedding Day

A very large vigorous rambler requiring plenty of room in the garden

Very fragrant single white flowers opening from yellow buds. With prominent orange stems

Once

6

Handel

A popular vigorous growing climber

Quite fragrant creamy white double flowers flushed with pink

Repeat

3.5

Marigold

A vigorous growing climber

Quite fragrant bronze and yellow double flowers

Repeat

3

Source: Updated using information kindly supplied by Writtle Agricultural College Chelmsford Essex, which first appeared in ‘Home Security- the complete handbook’ by Calvin Beckford and Heather Alston, published by New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd  © 2005  The Crime Prevention Website © 2011  

High hedges

Do be careful with high hedging as you might seriously annoy the neighbours.  If you are thinking about planting a high hedge that might affect your neighbour’s amenity do look to see if you might need planning permission or if you might fall foul of any legislation and also speak with your neighbours to discuss your plans. 

In England and Wales,  Part 8 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 (High hedges)  created new procedures to enable local authorities in England and Wales to deal with complaints about high hedges.  There is similar legislation in Scotland.

Further information about hedges can be found at the website of  Naturenet  and from the following publications produced by HM Government:

Over the garden hedge

The right hedge for you (broken link)

Hedge selector

The last document provides a table of alternative hedges for the garden (that’s alternative to Leylandii by the way; the source of many problems between neighbours)  

Trees

You must not make the mistake of thinking that you cannot have large trees and shrubs in your garden for fear of giving cover to the thief.  Your enjoyment of your garden must come first!  With careful planning I think you can have both a beautiful garden with lots of horizontal and vertical interest and one where a thief will worry about being seen.  The trick is to select the right trees and shrubs for the job.  Try to avoid mass screening using very high hedging, unless of course the screen does not affect your security.  

The trees shown in the table below are of three types: 

Columnar (fastigiate) trees can be used to provide a bold vertical point of interest in the garden without blocking all lines of site of a building. 

Open aspect trees provide opportunity for looking ‘through’ a tree from, say, a first floor window and the ‘tall trunk before branching’ trees (when mature) allow views of and out from buildings at ground level whilst still providing interesting foliage above. 

Thorny trees can be used to form a defensive hedge or can be used singularly to prevent a vulnerable part of a wall or fence from being climbed.  Frankly their uses are only limited by your imagination and don’t forget this is just a sample of the many hundreds of species that you can use.

Trees with crime prevention characteristics

KEY

 

1

Columnar/Slender shape

2

Open aspect/tall trunk before branching

3

Thorny/Spiny

 

KEY

GENUS

SPECIES

CULTIVAR

GROWTH HABIT

 

HEIGHT

(m)

1

Acer

platanoides

(Norway Maple)

‘Columnare’

A slow growing deciduous tree with good autumn colour and a compact oval habit of growth

15+

1

Acer

saccharum

(Sugar Maple)

‘Temples Upright’ or ‘Pyramidale’

Deciduous columnar tree with very good autumn colour.  Susceptible to salt damage, so avoid planting near highways

14

2

Acer

henryi

 

Deciduous spreading tree with very good autumn colour.

8

2

Acer

negundo

(Box Elder)

 

Fast growing deciduous spreading tree with round crown

9

2

Acer

rubrum

‘Scanlon’

Medium sized deciduous oval tree forming a conical head of branches with stunning autumn colour

16

2

Betula

papyrifera

(Paper Bark Birch)

 

A vigorous deciduous open-branched tree with attractive peeling white bark and pyramidal shape

15

2

Betula

Pendula

(Swedish Birch)

‘Dalecarlica’

An elegant open-crowned narrow deciduous tree with deeply serrated leaves on weeping branches.  White peeling bark.  Suitable for cold exposed sites

16

2

Betula

utilis var. Jacquemontii

(Himalayan Birch)

‘Silver Shadow’

A deciduous tree with striking white bark after four or five years. A slender habit of growth

12

1

Carpinus

betulus

‘Columnaris’

A small narrow variety of the common hornbeam.  Yellow leaves in Autumn

10

3

Crataegus

monogyna

(Hawthorn)

 

A small thorny deciduous tree, or tall hedge, of dense spreading habit

8

3

Crataegus

crus-galli

(Cockspur Thorn)

 

A very thorny tree that is similar to Hawthorn with excellent autumn colour and attractive fruits

8

3

Crataegus

pedicellata

(Scarlet Haw)

 

A wide spreading dense tree with long strong spines

9

3

Crataegus

prunifolia

 

A small compact deciduous tree with thorns and good autumn colour

8

3

Gleditsia

aquatic

 (Water Locust)

 

A small shrubby tree with spiny branches and trunk

10

3

Gleditsia

caspica

(Caspian Locust)

 

A small tree with formidable thorny branches and trunk

8

3

Gleditsia

delavayi

 

A rarer form of the locust tree with enormous spines

7

3

Gleditsia

triacanthos

(Honey Locust)

 

A very vigorous large tree with a thorny trunk and branches which tolerates air pollution

20

3

Maclura

pomifera

(Asage Orange)

 

A spiny open-crowned tree with large unusual fruits.  Good on well drained chalk soils

8

1

Populus

alba

‘Racket’

A deciduous narrow poplar with decorative silver foliage.  Do not plant close to buildings due to strong invasive roots

16

1

Populus

x canadensis

‘Eugenei’

A very tall poplar. Do not plant close to buildings due to strong invasive roots

30

1

Populus

nigra

‘Italica’

(Lombardy poplar)

A very fast growing tree with long male catkins. Do not plant close to buildings due to strong invasive roots

30

3

Prunus

spinosa

(Blackthorn)

 

A dense small and bushy tree

8

1

Quercus

robur

‘Fastigiata’

A deciduous upright Oak with dense branches

16

3

Robina

pseudoacacia

(False Acacia)

 

A fast growing elegant tree with spiny shoots, which is good on polluted sites

25

3

Robina

pseudoacacia

‘Frisia’

A golden leaved smaller version of the False Acacia

10

2

Sorbus

aucuparia

 

‘Joseph Rock’

A deciduous upright tree with good autumn colour and distinctive yellow berries

9

Source: Updated using information kindly supplied by Writtle Agricultural College Chelmsford Essex, which first appeared in ‘Home Security- the complete handbook’ by Calvin Beckford and Heather Alston, published by New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd  © 2005.  The Crime Prevention Website © 2011