I love a bit of hedgelaying. I’m too old/knackered/incompetent to do very much, but it’s a good workout and – more importantly – it’s good for wildlife in the garden.
I was taught the local style here which – thank the Lord – is about as simple as there is. Not for me the intricacies of the Midland hedge, which is what most think about when hedgelaying comes to mind. Midland hedges are things of great beauty; semi-cut stems, or “pleachers”, angle gracefully through a framework of stakes and binders.
Down here we have fat sedentary sheep, and the style I learnt, “Dorset”, reflects that (we’re on the Somerset/Dorset border). It’s pretty rough and ready, but I still find it a struggle to do well – I guess as I don’t do enough of it. The hedges I lay seem to work well enough though, and I’m sure my hedgelaying is great for the wildlife in the garden.
Originally, the idea was both to thicken up the base of a traditional hedge to ensure it was stockproof, and to reduce it to stop it growing out. Armies of ditchers and hedgers dotted the rural landscape in winter before the advent of the excavator and the flail. You can see the idea in these photos of the section I laid over the weekend:
These days it’s still a good idea, if you can. For most it’s not a practical option, but hedgelaying will produce a much thicker, more solid hedge. Great habitat and wildlife corridor, which is why we support the National Hedgelaying Society. Despite all the brash you take off, great for the hedge too; it won’t grow out and, ultimately, turn into a line of small trees.
The hedge won’t need anything other than a gentle trim for the next few years either, and this predominantly Hawthorn hedge will recover to it’s original height in no time.* It was around 8 feet tall and I’ve reduced it to around two feet, but as the plants are dormant(ish!) I haven’t done them any harm. Even where I’ve screwed up, the thorn will regenerate as if it were coppiced. It’s pretty indestructable, like all our traditional hedge plants. I’ll take some pics over the next couple of years to show it develop.
*It’s good practice though to only do a section at a time.
What people need on Twitter is more education and less politics.
I had a classically nonsensical conversation with a couple of twitterati over the weekend. It followed an entirely predictable path and got no-one anywhere other than cross, but it was illustrative of a couple of significant issues which are holding us back in the fight against the crisis in nature here.
The exchange started when I responded to this tweet:
England loses 10,000 miles of hedges every year. With loss of every hedge, a precious piece of countryside disappears forever. If we can’t control borders, overpopulation/urban sprawl will turn this pleasant land into one beastly car park
Everything here is wrong. The tweet was accompanied by a photo of supposedly bucolic bliss showing dry stone walls and flowerpots, which might not have inspired confidence to start with.
Why is it wrong? 10,000 miles was the guestimate Max Hooper came up with for maximum annual hedge loss in the 60s. I’m not saying things are ideal (!), but losses now are much smaller, particularly following legislation in 1997. Estimates vary as to exactly how many hedges we’re still losing. The vast majority of lost hedgerow, in those days and now, is/was the result of changing farming practice and/or poor management. It has indeed been a sad and devastating loss in the landscape, but not one caused by urban sprawl.*
Closing our borders isn’t an effective policy response to the collapse in global biodiversity which is – only now – making headlines. As the story behind our hedgerows actually shows, there is no silver bullet, no instant fix, to any of this. We’ve got to stop thinking there is. We need to make many changes to the way we live to tackle these enormous and complex problems. Some are already happening. These changes will have to be driven by education and science, not political agendas. This is what Michael Gove – incidentally – seems as if he might understand.
My twitter spat also illustrated another problem. 10,000 miles subsequently posted a photo showing the kind of “pristine” English countryside which we are concreting over. In this case his problem was the ghastly mooted housing development in the Cambridge-Oxford arc.
This isn’t pristine countryside. The woodland is in retreat. The hedges are heavily degraded (ironically!). There’s a monoculture of some kind of heavily fertilised fast growing grass, which will dominate any other species. This temporary ley will probably have been doused with selective broadleaf herbicides for good measure. Once it’s knackered it will be sprayed with herbicide and replaced. In other words, this pastoral scene is exactly the sort of thing we DON’T want.
We – collectively – seem to have a weird view of the countryside. Much of it is pretty much a green desert. The fields surrounding us here are pretty much as useless for wildlife as a housing estate. Further, the inhabitants of a housing estate don’t spend their time trying to slaughter all the insects thereabouts. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.
Producing a false narrative about the countryside is not going to help us. This has got specific historic precedent in the UK over hundreds of years – and it tends to end badly! Much, much more helpful is doing something practical in today’s world. What some farmers are trying to do now needs a lot more support from us as consumers, and the government. Many farmers are trying to help nature while making a living producing the food we don’t want to pay for. The cards are – currently – stacked against them.
Climate change, food production, consumption, the built environment… We need to action multiple practical solutions and fast, rather than just harkening back to a bucolic idyll we have misremembered and misrepresent. Oh, and get planting.
*The UK does sometimes feel very crowded, but in actual fact urban areas only cover something like a surprisingly low 6-8% of the country. This has been rising following recent planning policy changes, but city dwellers are pretty squished in.
Before we start, a little about what a windbreak actually is. What’s the difference between it and a shelterbelt or hedge? What are you looking for in a windbreak?
What Is A Windbreak?
To start with, what it’s not. It’s not a shelterbelt. A windbreak is a line or double line of trees and/or shrubs, whereas a shelterbelt consists of at least three lines of planting. I’d usually think of a shelterbelt as being planted at at least 1m spacings. To be honest, though, I’m not sure where “windbreak” stops and “large hedge” begins. A windbreak potentially has more large trees in it, I guess, and is not necessarily stock proof. A decent hedge has a good fat bottom to it. Native hedges are typically planted in double staggered rows up to 50cm apart, whereas windbreak rows will be planted wider.
All three – hedges, windbreaks and shelterbelts – provide semi-permeable barriers against the wind. The “semi” bit is important. You don’t want too solid a barrier, as might be created by fences or walls, or planting dense evergreens – you’ll have problems with wind turbulence.
Why Do I Need A Windbreak?
Too much wind in a garden or orchard has several effects. Most obviously, it creates structural damage to trees and plants. This isn’t just to stems, limbs, and fruit and flowers. Wind rock causes even worse problems. Wind also induces a chilling effect, which slows the metabolic activity of plants. On the other hand, you don’t want no air flow at all; this will mean pests and diseases.
What Trees Should I Use?
There are all sorts of odd trees for windbreaks used. To declare my interest, I think some of them look rather…peculiar. Eucalyptus, Lombardy poplars, various bamboos – they’re not really my thing. Most people planting windbreaks are in rural or semi-rural situations. If you are, have a look at what’s around you – use these species and they won’t look out of place later on. They’ll be good for local wildlife too. By the way, plant your trees as 60-90cm plants maximum size, or they won’t stand a chance! They will also need support.
You will need to work out how tall a windbreak you want. Here our prevailing winds are generally southwesterly or westerlies. This might produce problems; if your windbreak is too tall it will shade out some of the area you’re looking to shelter. According to the RHS, a windbreak is effective to 10 times its height – so if it’s 2m tall, it will shelter up to 20m of ground behind it. Typically this means that trees for windbreaks tend to be bigger than hedge species, or used in combination with them.
My short list might consist of the following:
Medium / Large Trees
Alder: There are three alders to consider as trees for windbreaks – Alnus glutinosa, which is the native one, A. cordata and A. incana. They have slightly different habits but the same helpful characteristics. They grow quickly (around 1m a year) in a wide range of conditions, including cold wet soils. Alders come into leaf early and hold their leaves relatively late, and you can mess about with them – they don’t mind drastic pruning. They were traditionally used to protect orchards as they don’t carry the same diseases that can afflict fruit trees.
Scots Pine: You could think about a number of pines, but P. sylvestris is our native one. It will grow bigger than an Alder, but more slowly. It’s typical of heathland but is regularly seen planted next to isolated farmsteads.
Small Leafed Lime: Tilia cordata is a recent favourite, particularly for a more formal look. Very pretty conical habit, tolerant of a wide range of soils.
Small Trees & Shrubs
Prunus: I’m lumping several plants in here, with similar characteristics. P. cerasifera, Cherry plum, P. domestica subsp. insititia, Damsons, and P. domestica subsp. insititia var. nigra, Bullace. I know – the botany is confusing. All are tough as old boots and excellent windbreak plants for a range of sites. Cherry plums flower very early and grow quickly, although rarely produce fruit (and when they do it’s inedible!). Traditional windbreak plant for orchards. A tough damson like ‘Westmorland’ will give you fruit as well as good performance, as will a bullace.
Hawthorn: Crataegus monogyna is your basic traditional hedge plant; tough, forgiving, fast growing (hence “Quickthorn”) and well behaved (unlike its unruly suckering friend Blackthorn). Good for wildlife, nice blossom.
Sea-buckthorn and Gorse: Not related, but both can be viewed with horror! Many folk spend their lives trying to get rid of them, as in the right conditions they can be invasive. Both Ulex Europaeus and Hippophae rhamnoides are very hardy, although they won’t grow very tall – gorse to say 2m and Sea-buckthorn rather taller. Sea-buckthorn is salt tolerant, as you might imagine.
Roses: R.canina and the non-native – but naturalised – R.rugosa might be favourite. They’re both vigorous, attractive and will tolerate pretty tough conditions. To something like 4m if left alone.
I’ve always been a big fan of urban hedges. I reckoned that – like trees – they must help manage water runoff and moderate temperatures. Planting relatively large numbers of mixed native plants together in cities had to be good for wildlife too – maybe even more so than trees because of their diversity, volume and value as a wildlife corridor and resource. I had supposed – partly because of that – hedges in cities would also be good for human mental health.
It turns out that they have much more significant and direct benefits.
We have thought for a while that trees can reduce particulates from, for example, car exhaust. The plants either absorb them through their stomates or catch them on their leaves, to be washed off or fall to earth in the autumn. Earlier studies suggested that well positioned trees could reduce particulates by up to a quarter.
It makes sense that hedges should be pretty good at this too. They’re not only denser but also at a better level to intercept exhaust fumes. A recent study supports earlier findings supporting this. Although its efficacy varies according to conditions, a roadside hedge can reduce near road air pollution by up to over 60% in some cases (including the cancer causing pollutant black carbon). Remarkably, hedging is not only much more effective than trees, but also seems to be more effective on its own than in combination with trees.
We have a massive problem with air pollution in our cities. The UK has regularly breached legal standards in London. Many thousands are dying from the consequences, and heart breaking individual stories are emerging. A recent WHO report found that over 4 in 10 primary school pupils in the UK are breathing dangerous traffic generated particulates.
The government seems short on practicable ideas to tackle the issue, at least in the short term. Why not plant hedges?
We recently planted this specially selected triple width mixed native hedge at a school in Yorkshire. It will be a dense filter (and impenetrable barrier!) soon enough, running over 100m along the school’s boundary.
Planting hedges in cities is simple and cheap, and they are demonstrably effective at reducing harmful pollution. Mixed native hedges like you would find in the country are attractive too, with lots of wildlife value. What’s not to like?
The commercial world of native hedge plants is a funny one. There are a few hardy folk out there selling British hedge species which they themselves have grown. Things like Hawthorn and Blackthorn. As you can imagine, it’s not an obvious way to make a million. There’s quite lot of time and manual intervention involved and – like last summer – you’re dependent on the weather to a degree, even if you can afford glass (greenhouses) and water.
Worse, it’s quite difficult to persuade people to pay a lot for them. They look around and ask why they couldn’t just liberate the odd sapling, or at worst grow plants from seed. Some do.
Worse still, it’s much easier to grow them abroad. Most of the “native British” hedge plants planted here are in fact imports from Denmark, Holland, Italy… Our few remaining “forest nurseries” are mostly small and struggle to match the economies of scale of their continental competitors.
British Hedge Plants To Be More… British?
Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel for them. We’re beginning to be more picky about where we source our plant material. For good reason. Plants grown here from UK seed are going to be more helpful in UK ecosystems. They’re going to be better genetically equipped for life here. They also reduce biosecurity risk. Regulation is never going to be as effective at reducing the risk of imported plant disease as… not importing plants. Increased controls on imports may be part of horticultural life in post Brexit Britain.
We’re at an interesting moment of inflection, and seeing a change which will accelerate. And not just because of potential political changes.
It was a terrible growing season here because of the Beast from the East, which meant plants were knocked back, followed by the dry summer. Many plants which should have been saleable as “60-90cm” grade are only 40-60cm. Some plants aren’t saleable at all. There’s an acute shortage of stock.
This effect has been worsened by higher demand. That’s partly because people are choosing to use plants grown here – I think possibly in the wake of the Ash dieback fiasco. Landscape architects are asking for British grown plants for their projects – and there is some large infrastructure work about at the moment. Individuals are planting more hedges too.
So bear with us if we are struggling to find exactly the hedge plant you want. It’s actually a sign of exciting change.
Hedgelaying now seems hopelessly quaint. It’s incredible to think that there would have been thousands of agricultural workers spending months and months painstakingly managing hedges with slashers and axes. The time it took is mind boggling. This sweet video from 1942 would have been completely unremarkable – I guess the landgirl would have seemed the most unusual thing about it!
Each area had its own style; in the video it’s Midland, with “binders” to support the cut stems, or “pleachers”, while they regrow. The local tradition where we live is much more rustic but clearly identifiable, as a Dorset hedge. Its development is easy to explain; it only needed to be proof against the lowland sheep which were such a familiar part of Hardy’s landscape.
I have to say I love pretty much everything about hedgelaying. I learnt how to lay (or “layer”) hedges on a weekend course many years ago. It’s something you have to do if you would like to pick it up. The Conservation Volunteers produce an excellent practical handbook, too. My skill levels are pretty basic (!) – I don’t lay 100s of metres of hedge every year to practice and I don’t have an expert watching over me – but Dorset hedges are pretty simple.
Why do I like it so much? To start with there’s the connection with that rich rural tradition. Like planting local apple trees. It’s genuinely interesting and demanding work too. Even with a chainsaw (not available in 1940s Northamptonshire!) it’s taxing and rewarding labour. Last off it makes a much better hedge.
In the days before barbed wire, hedges had to be stock proof – that was kind of the point. This photo shows another section of Hawthorn hedge I planted a few years ago. Stockproof it clearly isn’t. Lambs etc could cheerfully wander through it. Left unmanaged and you have a series of small trees, which is what many of the common hedge species (like Hawthorn and Blackthorn) want to be.*
This couldn’t matter a row of beans in terms of our hedges – a barbed wire fence protects the garden from rampaging cows. It does matter for other reasons though. Hedgelaying makes for a much thicker, denser hedge with a really solid base. You can see that these young hawthorns, planted around 50cm apart in a standard staggered double row, already look as if they will form a much wider barrier because of the brash I’ve left on them and the way their stems are lying. Even in its current state it provides a much denser – if much reduced – barrier. It will whistle up in no time, incidentally.
We’re pretty exposed, so the new hedge will provide a more robust and more substantial windbreak. More than that, though, it will be excellent for wildlife. That’s not surprising. Enormous numbers of invertebrates feed on common native hedge plants. In Hawthorn’s case it’s apparently 149. Its early blossom is a boon for pollinators too, and its berries in autumn for small mammals and birds. These species in turn bring exciting predators. Some insects lay their eggs on hedge plants to overwinter. Pollinators like bees, moths and butterflies enjoy not just spring blossom but also summer flowering hedgerow shrubs like roses and honeysuckle. Managing these plants through laying and then trimming them, rather than flailing, keeps those resources intact.
Hedges can provide fabulous shelter and safe corridors for movement – “wildways”. Their value for this is enhanced considerably if they’re laid and allowed to breath a little. We’re lucky enough to have dormice running around in our mature hedges, and shrews and voles use hedgerows as permanent habitats. Toads and other amphibia and reptiles find their dense, damp cover helpful. Birds are attracted by the insects, berries and nuts that a dense hedge provides, but also benefit from the protection of larger, denser hedges. They’re a great substitute for the wood pasture or woodland edge habitat that’s so rich in biodiversity.
Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on the progress of our little hedge. It’s always slightly unnerving to see this kind of reduction but it’s something I won’t have to do again for up to a decade, and won’t take long to look mightily impressive. It’s only about 30m long, but should be a lovely and important addition to the garden. Here’s one I did a few years ago – pictures at the end of the blog.
*In modern times flailing the bottom and surrounds of hedges and using herbicide around them exaggerates this tendency. You end up with a series of plants which look like forks; a single stem supporting a few prongs. Not really a hedge at all. Eventually the forks give up the ghost completely.
Max Hooper has just died. He was a proper botanist, who became known because of his work on British hedges in the 60s. From the obituaries and his writing he seems to have been quite a character too.
Like many I came across him because of “Hooper’s Rule”. This was his rule of thumb – for obvious reasons not definitive – for dating hedgerows. Walk along a 30 metre length of hedge and count the species in it. Multiply that number by 100 and you have a reasonable estimate for the age of the hedge.
There was also his work on the extent of the hedge loss in the UK. Hooper uncovered it by looking at RAF reconnaissance photos. 50 years ago we were losing over 10,000 miles a year. 10,000 miles! I didn’t think we had that many hedges – and how could we continue to be so casual about them?
I was staggered by Hooper’s Rule too. I started looking much more carefully at the hedges around our house in Somerset. All around us were early medieval hedges. Given the history of the village this was entirely predictable, I suppose, but I was amazed. Amazed that I hadn’t stopped twice to think about these important ancient things. Amazed that their diversity and history went unnoticed, at best. I then realised the hay meadow next door was probably pre 15th century. It was suddenly obvious to me that we didn’t even begin to appreciate or understand what was underneath our noses.
Realizing this and the extent of the destruction to our environment still going on was an important part of my decision to leave the City. There were much more important things to do. I started a business promoting – among things – native British hedge plants. Thank you for helping to convert me, Dr. Hooper.
By my reckoning, this bare root planting season the Habitat Aid hedge elves will have planted something over 130,000 plants around the country. There’s some repairing of existing hedges but it’s mostly new planting – woodland areas and new hedges, often on the sites of old grubbed out hedgerows. This makes me happy, particularly as they’re all species native to Britain and plants grown from British stock by British growers. Great for the wildlife that depends on them, great for everybody. So long as they’re looked after (!?) in a modest way we will have left our mark on the landscape for many years.
This season hasn’t been without its troubles, however. Most folk use bare root hedge plants; they’re cheap, easy to handle, and have a good success rate. They’re planted when dormant, in ground that’s not frozen or waterlogged. Here are the two problems. First off, as the more observant of you might have noticed, some early blossom has already been out for a while and the first shimmers of green are apparent in the hedgerows. It looks more like mid-March than early February out there. This means that there’s a huge rush on to get plants in the ground before they break dormancy, in which case they react badly to being transplanted. Alternatively, if like us you have suppliers who can chill their stock, you can hold spring back.
We’ve needed to do this for a number of sites which are underwater. In my book it’s probably not terribly bright building a solar park on the Levels, in a site surrounded on all sides by rhynes (deep drainage ditches) and where the local botany consists exclusively of rushes and sedges. I’m surprised the arrays haven’t started to sink. Anyway, the chances of planting that particular site before April are zero.
Climate change is having an effect on how we’re planting these hedges and what they’ll look like. Sections of Hawthorn and Hazel will fail because they will rot in standing water. We’ll replace them with Willow and Dogwood. The hedge will look much redder in the winter and spring. We are slightly moving old hedgelines in order to avoid really wet areas and tweaking mixes for some sites, particularly in the wetter west, to include more water tolerant species. The look of the countryside will change.
The methodology of planting will alter too. Specifiers – typically in our case ecologists and landscape architects – will have to be more flexible when it comes to planting times and species. A site can’t be planted between November and end March if it’s typically submerged for that period. More hedge mixes need to include wet loving plants; without them there can be some real disasters as “extreme” weather creates impossible conditions for some species.
There’s never a really good time of year to flail a hedge, but it’s particularly galling to see so much hedge cutting going on at this time of year.
It could be why the prodigious bounty of our native hedgerows tends to be over-looked, despite the fad for foraging. Sloes, hips, haws, elderberries and blackberries have all been excised from the hedges around us, which have been neatly cut as they are every year. It’s a real pain; armed with a variety of recipes we always look forward to raiding nature’s larder at this time of year.
In the past folk used to collect apples, berries and nuts from hedges as a free supplement to their diet, but for many birds and mammals this food source is rather more critical, of course. And flailing hedges like this doesn’t just impact on larger animals. It’s not surprising the Brown Hairstreak is such a rare butterfly; it lays its eggs on young Blackthorn plants. There’s no chance of them surviving an annual flailing; populations will be wiped out in a single year.
That’s not quite true – best practice is to lay a hedge, although that’s a time consuming manual business and is often not a practical answer. I’m a sucker for hedgelaying though, and lay all the hedges we have around our patch in Somerset. Follow the link to find out why.
We forget why and how to plant a native British hedge. We take them for granted. Country hedges a history going back to the bronze age, making them one of the oldest man made features in the British landscape. According to Hooper’s Rule , here in our bit of Somerset we’re surrounded by medieval hedges.
Native plants make a good, fast growing privacy hedge which is recommended for security. They’re also beautiful things and a fantastic resource for wildlife and foragers. Mixed hedges using native species are easy to recreate and manage, and I’m always surprised that more folk don’t go for them.
Why a Native Hedge?
Our native British hedge plants seem to me to be a bizarrely under-utilized resource in urban environments in particular. Here they can significantly help to reduce pollution. Perhaps people associate them with unruly country hedges, when they want a clean and tidy look. In which case, why not suggest a clipped single species? Other native plants can be as architectural as yew or box; use Hawthorn, for example. Like Blackthorn, a great security barrier, beautiful in spring, and fruitful in autumn.
For summer colour, completing all year round interest, punctuate with our native Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, or Dog rose,Rosa canina. To my mind, though, the more species in a hedge the better, if for no other reason than increasing its associated biodiversity. Structurally mixed hedges look sounder to me as well; you need a good mix of suckering species like Blackthorn and Hazel to continue to give it a good thick base.
This all means a traditional hedge is excellent for security. If they have kept cows and sheep out for hundreds of years, they’ll deal with people too! Hawthorn and Blackthorn – the clues are in their names – make impenetrable barriers. Hawthorn’s synonym – “Quickthorn” – also tells you how fast it will grow
Native hedge plants make good visual screens too. Beech and Hornbeam keep their leaves in hedges, and Yew, Holly and Privet are also evergreen.
Hedges and Wildlife
As with all our native plants, common hedge species have unique relationships with our native fauna. When they think about the food that they provide most people think about the berries for birds and small mammals – and larger mammals like gardeners! There’s a largely unnoticed community of animals further down the food chain, however, which depends on a hedge for other forms of sustenance.
Our butterflies and moths have unique relationships with our native plants, many of which you can include in a hedge. The Yellow Brimstone, for example, lays its eggs on Buckthorn, on which its caterpillars feed exclusively. Brown Hairstreak has a similar relationship with Blackthorn.
Think of the number of plants in a native hedge and you can imagine the volume of pollen and nectar even a short length will produce, as opposed to individual plants in a garden. The mix of species also ensures a long flowering period – there’s rarely a time when something isn’t in bloom. Hereabouts it’s the Blackthorn blossom in early spring which saves the honey bees from starving, and at the end of the season the ivy in autumn lets them stock up for winter on warm autumn days. Different flowers attract different pollinators, so a mixed native hedge will support a whole range of them.
Plants like blackthorn and hawthorn provide fantastic shelter for invertebrates, small mammals and birds. Hedges are handy corridors for wildlife too, and offer relative safety for animals while they move about. One of the issues exercising the conservation lobby at the moment is the fragmentation of good quality habitat, which need to be joined up. Hedges can be a pretty good way to do it, at least on a small scale. Animals don’t just use them as “wildways”, but also as navigation features. Bats use them to find their way across the landscape, for example, and bumblebees fly along them too.
Starting a Hedge
It couldn’t be easier to start a native hedge – after all, these are our British plants, so it should be easy to grow them! Before you start, prepare the ground by weeding a strip about a metre wide. If you have livestock, think about whether it would be best to wire the hedgeline before or after you plant your new whips. Don’t under-estimate the width your hedge will grow to.
Find a good quality supplier of British plants. There are plenty online, but do look carefully – please source your plants from a British nursery. Some of the large scale hedge renovation over the last 30 years has used plants from all over Eastern and Western Europe. There are lots of reasons to use hedge plants with British provenance, not least biosecurity. Some suppliers are either coy about provenance or infer it, so ask.
You’ll need 5 plants per linear metre to create a stockproof staggered double thickness hedge. We usually recommend something like 50cm between rows. That’s not to say your hedge must look like that. You might not have enough room for two rows of plants, for example, although the thicker the hedge the better from the point of view of wildlife. Some folk want a really thick, triple thickness hedge (7 plants a metre). If you wanted something optimal for a “wildway” you could plant rows up to 1m apart.
Many woodland nurseries sell a “conservation hedge mix”, or “mixed traditional” or “country” hedge mix, which should be a good diverse default mix for the agnostic, and will qualify for grants. It’s suitable for a wide range of situations and soils and consists of species widespread across the UK. If there are plants in it you don’t want or plants you particularly do, the nursery will usually happily tweak it for you. We don’t suggest using Blackthorn in a hedge next to a lawn, for example, because it suckers freely. On the other hand, you do want some suckering species, like dogwood and hazel, to help thicken up the hedge. You may also have a particular soil type or site which suits some species more than others.
Most farmers buy the smallest size plant on offer, which is often 40-60cm. Unless your site is very exposed, personally I’d stretch to the next one up, 60-90cm, which is the size we used in the picture. They’re still pretty small whips, which are easily planted and quick to establish. There is no point buying anything bigger as you’ll end up with a hedge with no bottom.
The whips will be bare root as they’re much easier to transport and will take much better than pot grown. They’re consequently delivered from November until the end of March while they are dormant. They should arrive in special packaging, so will sit in the shed/garage quite happily for several days. If you’re not planting them for a longer period, heel them in somewhere.
When you do get around to planting your whips the key thing is to keep the wind drying their roots out. I march around with the whips in a bucket of water. We tend to use Rootgrow now too, which encourages rapid establishment. The other big issue is frost; don’t try sticking them into frozen ground. They’re easy to plant, particularly if you have a two person planting team. One of you needs to open a slit in the ground with a spade and the other just pops a whip in and treads around it. Snip a few inches off the top of the whip to encourage the development of lateral branches.
If you have rabbits or deer you will also need the ubiquitous plastic spiral and cane. These will also help support and generally protect the young hedge plants, particularly against strimmers, rabbits and voles. The wretched things aren’t biodegradable, however, so if you can fence in your hedge instead that’s a better option.
First off, you MUST keep the base of your native hedge clear of weeds and grass. The whips don’t need to compete with perennial weeds while they are getting established. If you don’t use a mulch then you’ll have to weed for a couple of years. WE don’t recommend using strips of plastic mulch as the voles love to hide under them and eat your new plants’ roots!
Once established – after a couple of years – removed hedge guards and canes if you have used them.
Without plant management, in a few years’ time you’ll have a different problem to deal with. Although we’ve pretty much arrested the decline in the length of hedges in the UK, they’re beginning to turn into rows of small trees. Left unattended your native hedge will go vertical, which is less helpful for all than a dense hedge with a wide base.
As time goes on the ideal way to ensure a perfect hedge is to lay it, but that’s often not practical. That’s a whole different blog anyway! Establish a trimming regime that impacts the least on local wildlife, though. The Single Payment scheme asks for hedge cutting to stop between 1st March and 31st July, but the optimal time to do it is January and February. That’s after the berries have been eaten but before birds start nesting.
Don’t butcher a hedge to an inch of its life, as you often see flails do, but trim it in a two or three year rotation to let it fill out. The Single Payment scheme quite sensibly specifies a 2m wide uncultivated zone from the middle of the hedge.
If you do need to take extreme action to get a mature hedge back under control, coppice it in sections, year by year, to minimize the impact on wildlife. Ideally, gap up a hedge while renovating it with locally sourced whips in keeping with the species you see around you.