Hedges and trees are a huge part of the British countryside, and both are an essential part of our ecosystem. Hedging is a conduit for wildlife, providing shelter and food, used for stock proofing and shelter for livestock or creating rooms or privacy in private gardens. While trees offer another dimension to the natural habitat that supports wildlife in abundance.
Hidcote Manor Gardens
Trees are one of the greatest joys that any gardener can enjoy. Planting a tree is a pleasure that lasts many years. Recently, one of my favourite trees, a willow that my wife planted 20 years ago, had to be felled as it had a fungus that was killing it. It’s a sad day when a majestic willow with its weeping branches must be cut down. I’m determined to either replace it with another or try something different. It was planted close to an old ditch and therefore the soil is always damp – except for the odd scorching summer we’ve had recently. I like the idea of an alder, after all the wood was used to build boats and the pilings for the foundations of Venice. Alder wood does not rot when waterlogged and in fact turns stronger and harder.
Willow Tree cut down
I love trees and last year planted a dozen broad-leaved lime trees, mainly to eventually cover an urban view a few miles away. They’re all doing well, weed-free at their base and protected from deer with guards and the wind with stakes and ties. What I didn’t know was that the wood can be used for turning and carving and the bark for rope, and as the wood does not warp it's frequently used for sound boards and piano keys.
We planted a horse chestnut many years ago, which seems to be thriving, and the only use I can think of is the game of conkers, first recorded on the Isle of Wight in 1848!
Horse chestnut last year
I have tried to plant acorns for over 20 years so that one day we would have a mighty oak. However, the deer seem to love them, even if protected by guards, the deer just wait until they appear above the guard and nibble them. Perhaps I should have given them more protection. Oak used to be a very valuable wood, traditionally used for building ships (the Mary Rose was made from 600 oak trees), is now used for furniture and construction. The acorns were fed to livestock in the past, but my favourite use for oak is for wine barrels.
Oak tree with Rainbow
Silver birch form an avenue either side of our drive, and are gorgeous trees, bright green leaves in spring, orange and red in autumn and of course the bark that is of year-round interest. They really are strong, resistant and able to grow (usually quite quickly) in almost any soil type. If you’re not sure what tree to plant, then this would be my go-to tree.
Silver Birch Avenue in Autumn
Beech trees are used for lumber, flooring, boatbuilding and furniture, although the beech nuts were highly prized by pig farmers. It’s often described as being majestic, with its big spread and muscular outline. Our trees were here at the front of our house well before we arrived 25 years ago and continue to provide shelter from the prevailing south-westerly winds.
My wife is Scottish, and I think has pined for the Scots pine, however I’m fairly sure that they won’t flourish here in Wiltshire. The soil’s a bit too claggy, and it really prefers sandy, well-drained soil. So, I think we won’t be planting one soon. Traditionally used for telegraph poles, pit props, gate posts and fencing. It was voted the national tree of Scotland in 2014.
My favourite is willow, which is used for making the best cricket bats. Cricket willow is exported from the UK overseas, particularly India to make some of the best bats in the world.
My wife and I planted a tree when each of our children was born. Jack’s tree was an apple tree that produces the most delicious eating apples and is going strong, Harry’s tree is a morello cherry tree, which produces the most stunning blossom and fruit for pies, jams and cherry brandy, although we have to net the tree from birds. Rory’s tree is a copper beech, which replaced an old beech, and is growing fantastically well – like him (he’s over 6 foot tall now).
Harry's Cherry Tree
Rory's Copper Beech
The interesting relationship between trees and hedging is that the thorny bushes traditionally grown on scrubland acted as nurseries for the trees described above, not in every case but more often than not. People were encouraged to throw acorns into blackthorn hedges and when a tree is at its most vulnerable is often protected by thorny hedges when its beginning to establish itself.
I’ve planted beech hedging in our garden, laurel to act as a barrier and shelter as well as informal country hedging which included blackthorn, crab apple, hawthorn, hazel, field maple, wild pear, wild privet and dog rose. The great thing about hedging is that is provides a tapestry to the countryside, typical of the UK, rarely found to the same extent elsewhere in the world.
Hedging in its many guises is used to create useful stuff that we used in the past and sometimes today. Dog rose produced rosehips for syrups, sauces and jellies which are really high in vitamin C. I’ve used blackthorn to make walking sticks and the hawberries can make delicious preserves. Hazel is still used for thatching spars, basketry and furniture while birch was used for cotton reels and bobbins and the bark for waterproofing and tanning.
I always use this Welsh proverb – “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now”.
From now until the end of March is the best time to plant your bareroot trees and hedging to leave a lasting legacy for future generations to enjoy and benefit from.
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