Climate change means that bees are struggling in late winter. Honeybees and bumblebee queens are out and about in the second half of February as I write, with the temperature getting up to the mid teens in Somerset. Honeybees will fly above 12 degrees, bumblebees in colder weather. The earliest solitary bees, like the gorgeous Hairy-footed flower bee* (Anthophora plumipes), are around too. And this is problematic. Bees need nectar (for sugars and water) and pollen (for protein). Particularly early in the season they need to collect this food for their developing larvae. But where can they find it? They’re in real danger of starving. Winter bee plants are essential – and let’s not forget for overwintering butterflies too.
Blackthorn, traditionally the saviour of country beekeepers, is days away from flowering here. Most willows are in bud. There just aren’t many native flowers out. It’s a really critical time, particularly for bumblebee queens. This is a new phenomenon. The good guides, like Plants For Bees, aren’t confident about which plants work for all these bees in mid-February, because in the past it has been too early for them. The only bees you tended to see on the odd warm February day were honeybees out on a quick cleansing flight.
So how can you help? Here are five plant ideas for your garden.
Mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun‘)
You can plant several really good flowers and trees which aren’t just flowering now – some have already been out for weeks. Mahonia falls into this category. It’s an excellent winter bee plant, particularly a variety like ‘Winter Sun’. Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee, now seems to have two generations in a year in some parts of the south, and this is a particularly important plant for it.
The crocuses have been out for week or so, in contrast. They might not flower long, but – boy – they seem to be an excellent plant for a range of bees. They produce prolific amounts of yellow/orange pollen, and are also popular with hoverflies. Go for Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) or Dutch crocus (Crocus vernus).
Hellebore (Helleborus niger)
Our hellebores have been flowering for weeks. Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, is the first in flower. They have whitish pollen which doesn’t seem to be produced in vast quantities, but is invaluable at this time of year. Good winter bee plants.
Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera)
We also have a couple of small trees which are highly decorative and early in blossom. The very first is Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), which is easily confused with Blackthorn as it’s often found in hedges and its flowers are similar. It’s not as spiny, however; the young growth is green, the flowers have stalks, and it flowers earlier. Cherry plum is in my top 10 of under-rated native plants (it was introduced here ages ago and is now fully naturalised). It’s tough – often used as a windbreak – and has this very early flowering period. It’s a good hedge plant and sometimes produces fruit which the birds like.
Almond (Prunus dulcis)
Cherry plum is regularly in flower in mid-February, and just beats our Almond trees(Prunus dulcis). It will have to get hotter yet for us to have nuts, but the fabulous delicate and early pink blossom is reason enough to grow them. Honeybees pollinate almond orchards in California (where they’re treated scandalously). Here they seem to like them too.
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.
What would you think about if I asked you for good foodplants for butterflies and moths? Buddleja? Verbena bonariensis? Hebe?
It’s true – they’re all great nectaring plants, and non-native to the UK. So why should I bother with native plants if I want to encourage butterflies and moths?
Well, many native plants are very good sources of nectar, of course. Hemp agrimony, knapweed, honeysuckle, wild marjoram and field scabious spring immediately to mind. These are all attractive and in some cases long flowering wildflowers. As nectar plants are they as good as the ornamentals? It’s a far from straightforward question and not my topic here!
Where native plants incontrovertibly DO win is as foodplants for caterpillars. British caterpillars, by and large, need British plants to munch. This can, of course, extend to cultivars, which explains why cabbages are regularly written off. There are exceptions too; I offer up nasturtiums (from South America) in my veg patch as a sacrifice to happy Small White caterpillars.*
At this point gardeners say they have a nettle patch for caterpillars. Well yes – good foodplant but not enough on their own. Atropos Publishing has a good guide which shows which species of butterfly and larger moth depend on which foodplant. Urtica – nettles – have 35 associated caterpillars. It highlights the difference between imported plants and native. Buddleja are a good example; the book lists only 3. This is very different to a native plant – field scabious has 14.
Grasses too are good larval foodplants, which is one of the reasons why we encourage people to sow meadow mixes rather than just wildflowers. Cocksfoot, for example (although not ideal for a meadow), comes in as supporting 35 different types of caterpillar.
Trees and hedge species are even better. Sometimes they have almost exclusive or totally exclusive relationships with individual plants. I think of Yellow Brimstones and Buckthorn, Purple Emperors and Oak, Brown Hairstreak and Blackthorn. The king of all our plants is the Oak; according to the book, both oaks support over 120 types of moth and butterfly caterpillars. It’s said an oak tree will lose around half its leaves to insects in an average year.
Which are the top five foodplants? They’re all native trees or shrubs:
English and Sessile oaks (Q. robur and petraea)
Willows (Salix spp.)
Birches (Betula spp.)
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
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.
Robin Lane-Fox wrote a bad tempered piece in last weekend’s FT about “exotic” v. “native” plants in the garden. He’s a respected plantsman, and so I wasn’t surprised to read he was against using native plants in the garden. I’m entirely sympathetic to this view; we are all masters and mistresses of our own gardens, and should do with them whatever we most enjoy. What did surprise me, however, is that he repeated the mantra that our wildlife was oblivious to the difference between (plain) native plants and attractive exotics. It’s true that disease threatens many of our “native” tree species. Sadly we would do well to think about alternatives for planting schemes. When we do, it would also be advisable to source them from UK nurseries so that a raft of new diseases doesn’t reach our shores. Improved biosecurity and more UK grown plants may be rare Brexit dividends.
Plants for Pollinators
It’s also right that “exotic” plants can be at least as beneficial to some wildlife as “native” plants – in some cases more so. Many bees, butterflies and other pollinators benefit from the longer and different flowering periods. There’s also the heavy nectar production of some attractive exotic flowers. We sell a fantastic seed mix from Flowerscapes which illustrates this. However – and this is a big but – it’s wrong to think of plants purely as providers of pollen and nectar. Even if we did there are bee species which are oligoleges – i.e. they feed from a specific plant genus or even single plant species.
I imagine there are no Brimstone butterflies in the doubtlessly beautiful Lane-Fox garden. Brimstone larvae dine exclusively on the leaves of one of our dullest looking shrubs, Buckthorns*. Many moth and butterfly larvae have similarly exclusive or nearly exclusive relationships with other native plants as do many thousands of insects. This includes the Blackthorn so disliked by Mr Lane-Fox. Quercus robur – that’s the English oak, not your imported tat – supports up to 400 different species of herbivore insects in the UK. This kind of dependence is true of amphibians and mammals – no boring old hazel, no boring old dormice.
My own garden is less ornamental and more nature reserve, but that’s what gives me pleasure. It’s a smorgasbord of natives and exotics, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s also full of the munching, buzzing, swimming things which can’t survive in the surrounding farmland.
*Our bees also seem very partial to Purging Buckthorn‘s inconspicuous little flowers.
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.
I’ve been itching to think up a new hedge project for ages, and now we have one. Emboldened by Mike the new gardener we are taking a bite out of what is currently pasture and filling it with an extension to our cut flower bed and vegetable garden. We are also putting what should be a fabulous wildlife pond, which will be the centrepiece for our one day course in April. Although that has to wait, of course it’s absolutely the right time to be putting a hedge in. Its longest side is Southwest facing, so perfect for butterflies in particular. The mix I’m getting is heavy on Alder Buckthorn for Brimstones, and Blackthorn to try to help the increasingly rare Brown Hairstreak. Although the soil here is neutral rather than acid, there is a section damp enough for the Buckthorn, so I hope it will do. We are a little light on Blackthorn in our current hedges, and I do like it (not just for the sloe gin); it can be a painful plant to work with, but it lays well and its spiky suckering habit makes for a great hedge and a fantastic habitat for all sorts. Buckthorn and Blackthorn apart, the mix also includes Quickthorn, Hazel, Field Maple, and Dog Rose. I can’t wait for the plants to arrive.