First things first, Hornbeam is perhaps THE plant for deciduous hedging in this country. While many hanker after beech, hornbeam has much to recommend it and in many situations is preferable (of all our hedging plants, it is one of the best in shade). Its leaves are the most brilliant of greens in spring; Monty Don says that the colour makes his "eyes dance". The veins on each leaf are separated by a corrugated trough so that the leaf with its serrated edge looks a bit crinkled which gives the hedge an interesting texture. The trunks and bark of hornbeam are always well shaped and slightly ridged which becomes apparent on the full tree or where a hornbeam hedge is pleached so that you can see the lower half of the trunk while the upper part of the tree is trained to act as a raised hedge. The best example of this can be seen at Hidcote Gardens. Hornbeam will thrive in most soils unless it is completely waterlogged but prefers a well-drained rich soil. Most unusually it will grow less luxuriantly, but happy nonetheless, in shade. In the autumn (unless it has been exceptionally dry) the leaves turn a clear yellow before becoming pale brown for the winter. If you trim the hedge in mid-summer the winter leaves will hold until next spring.
Hornbeam's main attraction is as an excellent hedging plant. Saplings will shoot up if well-watered so that within a year or two you will have a tightknit low hedge and over a few more years the potential to possess an enormously tall hedge. A solid, trimmed hornbeam hedge can stand alone in a formal garden with little to distract from it or can be used behind a mixed border to focus attention on the flowers by providing a consistent, green background. Hornbeam responds well to training. Use it to create tunnels, alleys or more commonly to act as a pleached hedge where the hedge part is raised above the bare trunks. Pleached hornbeam hedges can in effect 'raise' a boundary wall in an elegant and inexpensive way or can divide a garden into different 'rooms' without each room feeling too enclosed. Change the planting underneath the bare trunks: forget-me-nots and tulips in spring, small peonies for summer and lavender for late summer and autumn. Ham House has a good example of a tunnel of pleached hornbeam emerging from a low-growing yew hedge.
Hornbeam is not a specimen tree to grow as an ornamental in a small garden because it reaches 20 metres without difficulty! It does make for a great park or woodland tree - just look at Hatfield and Epping Forests - and there are more specialised forms of it: Fastigiata with its wonderful, slim column of leaves is especially sought after and there is an American form - Carpinus caroliniana - whose leaves in Autumn go a zingy orange.
In fact not horrible at all, the hornbeam has been a highly valued tree for many years because of its strength. Hornbeam wood is the hardest wood grown in this country. There is a venerable tradition of hornbeam being used to create butcher's blocks, piano hammers and pulley blocks. More commonly it was grown as wood 'pasture' and pollarded yearly so that the fast-growing wood could be harvested for timber while leaving room for cattle to graze around them. The density of the wood makes it excellent for firewood and for making charcoal. To see hornbeam at its most splendid, take a trip to Het Loo in Holland to see the Queen's garden, a labyrinth of covered walkways, caves and tunnels all fashioned from hornbeam grown over an oak trellis.