Copper beech is one of the most elegant hedges available to the British gardener. It has all the qualities of green beech hedging; it grows almost anywhere where there are reasonable light levels and where the ground is not waterlogged.
Beech is a true British native and as such it is happy growing across the majority of the conditions found in the British Isles. I used to wonder how leaves that are not green can photosynthesise. The answer is simply that they are green as well as purple at the same time, and human eyesight cannot distinguish the different colours. So copper beech leaves, even when they are pink or purple, work as well as green beech leaves.
Copper beech's foliage starts life in different colours, from quite green to almost pink, but always translucent and a thing of wonder in May with the early morning or late evening sun behind.
What differentiates copper beech from green beech is the near-continuous change of foliage colour that takes place through the year. The early pinks & greens of late spring darken to a true copper in summer, then as autumn approaches it carries on through increasingly deep shades of purple to the darkest green before the foliage dies.
At this point, the word 'marcescence' jumps in to label the beech family's characteristic of retaining dead foliage through winter, adding a cheerful note of soft, crisp golden-brown leaves from late October to the beginning of April.
Unlike green beech, it is this range of colour that copper beech displays for nearly ten or eleven months out of twelve makes it one of the most consistently remarkable sights you can find in any garden throughout the year. From formal to informal and short to tall, there is no other hedge plant like it!
In other respects like growth rate, habit, soil preferences, disease resistance and so on, the two colours of Fagus sylvatica are identical.
Beech clips beautifully. As a young plant, beech grows surprisingly quickly, but as each branch is clipped, smaller branches sprout from the 3 or 4 buds beneath the cut. Every time the hedge is cut, this process repeats and an enormous network of branches and sub-branches is built up.
This structure requires nourishment and support, so as it gets larger the hedge devotes an increasing proportion of its energy to maintenance, and not growth, i.e. it slows with age.
This deceleration makes for a perfect hedge plant: it gets to your required size relatively quickly and thereafter grows relatively slowly. You can get away with clipping a mature beech hedge once a year, and you will keep it looking very neat indeed with 2 clips. That puts beech in pretty much the same hedge maintenance category as yew and box.
Beech is forgiving of mistakes. Unlike almost all evergreen hedge plants (apart from Yew and Thuja 'Brabant'), beech regrows from old wood. This means that if you cut deep and expose the inside of the hedge, new shoots will appear to repair the hole before long.
Restoring an old beech hedge
Over a period of 3 years, you make 3 brutal prunings.
- In the winter of the first year, cut one of the vertical faces of the hedge almost back to the trunks at the centre of the hedge, leaving short stubs of the main lateral branches: most of the regrowth will come from these stubs, so don't cut them flush with the trunk. New growth will burst by May.
- The following winter, remove the top of the hedge, cutting down to about 9 inches below your desired finished height. Again, it will look sad until May!
- In the winter of the third year, remove the other vertical face of the hedge in the same way you did the first.
By spreading such radical pruning over 3 years, the shock is not severe and plants recover beautifully. The biggest beech hedge reduction I have seen was from 4m tall by 3m wide down to about 1.7 metres tall by 90cm wide, and it looked good by the end of May or early June every year throughout.