You're spoiled for choice when it comes to hedging
plants – but by focusing on what you really need, you
can make it all a bit easier...
The winter planting season is well under way, and one of the oldest forms of planting is hedging.
We give a few pointers below on what to consider when choosing a hedge for your garden, allotment, orchard, farmland – pretty much anywhere in fact.
What do we mean by 'hedge'?
For many of us, a hedge might simply mean something grown around the edge of the garden for privacy, or to divide the garden into smaller areas.
If you're a farmer, it's likely to be a dividing line between different crops, or to contain livestock. Some of the UK's longest-lived farmland hedgerows can be many hundreds of years old.
Then there's the formal hedge (including that wonderful art of topiary), invariably seen in the grounds of stately homes and trimmed to near perfection.
In the end, we all generally appreciate that a hedge will be a row of plants, usually kept trim and under control. We say usually, because some hedges (edible and flowering ones especially, plus large protective 'shelterbelts') are intended to be rambling and productive, with just a bare minimum of pruning and growth control.
Location, Location, Location!
As with any plant, think carefully about its immediate environment. This will have the largest bearing on which hedging plant you should choose, and how you'll need to look after it.
- Is the soil dry, open and sandy? Wet, heavy and sticky with clay? Even and loamy? Or a bit of a mix?
- Is the planting site mostly sunny or shaded?
- Is it exposed to winds or sheltered?
- Is it likely to suffer frosts?
- Is it coastal or inland?
It's always worth taking the time to explore the types of plants that are known to grow well locally – a friendly nursery, farmer, or gardening enthusiast will always be happy to help.
Fit for purpose
Consider what you want the hedging to do for you – here is a list of some thoughts you might want to keep in mind when you're planning your hedge:
- A tidy, evergreen border (for neatness and quite low maintenance, such as Box hedging)
- A country hedge (to divide fields or define pathways, including native species such as our Coastal hedging or Stock-Friendly hedging mixes)
- Wildlife friendly (providing food and shelter for birds, bees and mammals, and encourages pollination – take a look at our RSPB-approved bird-friendly hedging mix)
- Non-poisonous (for children, pets and livestock, as a rule of thumb avoid evergreens and berries, but always take special care choosing each species)
- Noise reducing (if you're near roads, factories, stations, or any other noisy environments, choose dense evergreens such as Common Laurel, Portugal Laurel or Leylandii)
- View obscuring (look at the same species as the noise-reducing ones above to gain privacy, or to hide the local industrial estate – but as with any rapidly growing plants, do consider the possible impact on your neighbours)
- Decorative and productive fruit (for cordons, espaliers, fans and stepovers, you have a wide range of apple, pear, cherry, plum, damson, gage and more to choose from)
- Low soft fruit hedge (we all enjoy picking fruit, especially the kids – go for your favourite currants and berries)
- Formal hedging (for formal gardens, including topiary, tradition would suggest Yew or Box for its natural tidiness)
- Low and slow growing (where screening isn't important and you want small, neat and tidy, take a look at Dwarf box)
- Fit with the environment (using native and local species, or for conservation purposes, including classic British hedges such as Hawthorn, Field maple, Holly, Guelder rose, Spindle, Dog rose and more!)
- Intruder-proof and secure (dense thorny hedges can be far more effective – and prettier – than walls and fences... not much would think about crawling through Pyracantha, Holly and Barberry – ouch!)
- A plant's attributes such as foliage, berries, flowers and stems (pick plants such as Dogwood, Beech or Viburnum – just because you like the colours!)
A hedge is for life...
All hedges will need some time spent on them. It's not too dissimilar to having a pet that once with you, will need looking after. You'll need to train your plants well to maintain shape and size, and ultimately to fulfil the purposes you wanted the hedge for.
Remember, the faster the grower, the higher the maintenance. Formal trimming in some growing seasons will be twice a year, and trimming starts straight away in the year of planting in most cases.
Now, here's that great list of 10 top tips for a healthy hedge from Hedgelink – we're sure you'll agree that it gives real food for thought.
Top ten tips for a healthy hedge
- Keep it thick and dense - Close-knit hedges provide a safe haven for small birds, whereas open hedges encourage large birds and squirrels. Holly is a very good hedging plant, giving excellent protection during the winter.
- Cut at the right time - Leave trimming your hedge until late winter. Hedgerows provide vital food for birds throughout the winter. The earlier you cut, the less food will be available in the most hostile time of year. And never cut during the bird breeding season of 1 March to 31 August.
- Don't cut too often or too tight - Cutting is necessary to keep a hedge thick, but cutting back to the same point each year will reduce flowers and fruits. Try to cut just once every two or three years, or each time let the hedge grow out and up a little. Another alternative is to cut just one side or the top each year.
- Encourage native shrubs - Native shrubs provide better habitat and food for insects, birds and animals than foreign species. You can provide food throughout the year with: willows and blackthorn for early season nectar; hawthorn, bramble and rose for summer flowers and autumn berries; ivy for autumn nectar and late winter berries.
- Encourage flowers and grasses at the base and margins - Flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees and other beneficial invertebrates, and grasses provide safe places for beetles, spiders and the like during the winter. Amphibians like dense growth at the base of hedgerows for food, cover and places to hibernate, as do hedgehogs.
- Look after trees or plant new ones - Trees, especially native ones like oak and beech, will increase the amount of wildlife that uses the hedge. Insects will congregate around the tree, providing rich feeding for birds and bats. Small trees, like holly, rowan and crab apple, also provide valuable flowers and fruits.
- Rejuvenating your hedge - Hedges can be kept bushy for many years, but they will eventually open up at the base. If this happens, cut them down close to ground level so they can send up a crop of new stems, planting new whips to fill the gaps. This won't work for conifers though!
- When establishing a new hedge, take care to plant suitable species - Many hedge problems, including neighbour disputes, happen because plants used for quick results produce hedges that rapidly become too high and difficult to maintain. Think carefully about why you want a hedge and about the site before choosing your shrubs and trees – the 'Fit for purpose' list earlier in this article will help you think this through.
- Link the hedge with other wildlife habitats and fill in gaps - Many creatures avoid crossing open spaces to avoid predators. Link your hedge to other hedges, or to woodland, or a pond, and it will provide safe passage for wildlife to move through the landscape.
- Explore your hedge - Do keep a close eye on your hedge and see what lives in it, and what parts of the hedge are most favoured by the wildlife you want to attract. You can then tailor your management accordingly. Keep a record of the species you see.
A huge thank you to Hedgelink for providing this top 10 list. If you're passionate about British hedges, do take a look at Hedgelink's website.
Hedging is vitally important to the British landscape and to our wildlife. We hope that this blog provides lots for you to think about.
And all that remains is for you to choose your hedging, get the tools sharpened and cleaned, and get planting!