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Features: Garden projects

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Planting a new mixed native species hedge

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Basildon hedgeThe distant hedges of Laindon (Basildon) which still inform the designs I have on my own garden. A feature of the newtown where I grew up that gave me a real feeling of connection with the countryside, were the remnants of hedges, some centuries old, which stood as reminders of the area's natural and agricultural heritage. When I was young, these hedges sported huge elm trees, sadly now all gone (although their smaller 'progeny' still survive), but also many other trees, shrubs and flowers which together took an unshakable hold on my affections.

Field maple (Acer campestre), oak (Quercus robur), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), red campion (Silene dioica), greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) and many others: Open quotesin these plants and the animals found amongst them, my young senses discovered a dazzling variety of lifeClose quotesin these plants and the animals found amongst them, my young senses discovered a dazzling variety of life which I could not even imagine being exceeded by a rainforest!

The affection and respect in which I hold hedgerows has never waned and recently it has been my joy and privilege to attempt to bring some of their magic into my own garden. You don't need a huge garden to have a small hedge! The hedgerow I describe planting in this article is around 5 metres long.

Choosing plants

Planting a hedgerow is one of those garden projects which is peculiarly satisfying because Open quotesdespite making very significant landscape changes and benefiting wildlife enormously, you do not have to spend much moneyClose quotesdespite making very significant landscape changes and benefiting wildlife enormously, you do not have to spend much money. Native hedging plants are amazing value - all of those I used here were under 1 each and the hawthorn (the cheapest and most plentiful) were only 39p each! In total I spent around 25 on 30 plants and carriage for my 5 metre stretch.

Open quotesFor maximum benefit to wildlife, you should use native species where possibleClose quotesFor maximum benefit to wildlife, you should use native species where possible (see our feature on the principles of designing gardens for wildlife). That's not to say that you shouldn't include some non-native plants that appeal to you: variety is important and there is always room in a garden for your own favourites. To choose native species which will be of most benefit to your own local wildlife and 'feel right' in your locality, Open quotesa walk around the local lanes and byways will give you plenty of inspirationClose quotesa walk around the local lanes and byways will give you plenty of inspiration.

If you want to attract particular animals, do your research - for example including one or two buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) (also known as purging buckthorn) or alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus) which are foodplants for the caterpillars of brimstone butterflies (Gonepteryx rhamni), will increase your chances of seeing this species in your garden. But to maximise their chances of attracting egg laying females, these should be planted in a sunny but sheltered position. In addition, buckthorn does better on base soils while alder buckthorn is to be preferred on those which are more acidic.

Planting and caring for a new hedge

I ordered my plants over the internet from a supplier called Buckingham Nurseries. You may prefer to use a local supplier, especially if it's important to you that plants are of local provenance. It is also worth considering growing your own from seed or cuttings you have collected if you have the patience and the expertise. My bare rooted seedlings were all around two to three foot long.

Open quotesBare rooted trees and shrubs can only be lifted and transplanted in the dormant season which is the period between November and MarchClose quotesBare rooted trees and shrubs can only be lifted and transplanted in the dormant season which is the period between November and March. Although I ordered my plants in November, the supplier had trouble sourcing the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and I didn't receive the order until February. Open quotesThe weather was too wet to plant them immediately, so I decided to 'heel' them in until conditions improvedClose quotesThe weather was too wet to plant them immediately, so I decided to 'heel' them in until conditions improved. This simply involved opening a short trench in the ground, Open quotesI soaked the roots for an hour in my pond which helps them during the transplantation processClose quotes inserting the saplings (without worrying about spacing them out) and firming the soil around their bases. Before I did this, I soaked the roots for an hour in my pond which helps them during the transplantation process. If the soil is too frozen to heel the plants in, keep the roots wrapped in moist straw or paper in a garage or shed (unheated).

Planting the hedge
These pictures illustrate the main steps I took when planting the new hedge in my own garden.

Soaking hedge
Bare rooted saplings should be soaked for about an hour (no more than three) before planting. Here I rested the roots in the 'beach' end of my pond. (View bigger image.)
Heeled in plants
When I took delivery, the weather was very poor and the ground waterlogged and difficult to work so I decided to delay planting. I 'heeled in' the saplings by opening a short trench with a spade, placing the roots in and firming back the soil with my boot. (View bigger image.)
Planted hedge
After a week spent 'heeled in' the weather had improved and I had time to plant the hedge. I opened a small slit trench for each plant by inserting the spade and moving it backwards and forwards. The roots were spread into the trench and the soil firmed back with my boot. (View bigger image.)
Pruned hedge
Once planted I immediately pruned the plants back by about a half and watered them in well. Such hard pruning encourages them to produce low growth during their first year. (View bigger image.)

A week later, conditions had improved and I was able to plant the five blackthorn, 15 hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), two hazel (Corylus avellana), three field maple (Acer campestre) and five guelder rose (Viburnum opulus). I planted these 30 plants over a five metre stretch at a spacing of about 15cm (6 inches). Open quotesI opened a hole for each plant by inserting a spade and rocking until there was a slit trench big enough to accommodate the rootsClose quotesI opened a hole for each plant by inserting a spade and rocking until there was a slit trench big enough to accommodate the roots. The roots were then let into the trench, spread as naturally as possible and the soil firmed back around them. Damaged roots should be trimmed off before planting. Some people advocate trimming long roots back whether they are damaged or not - while the plants are dormant, it does not harm them.

Angling your plants at around 45 degrees as you plant them will help you to establish a hedge which is not too thin at the bottom. (It looks and works better if they all go in the same direction.) Open quotesHard pruning by about a third to a half of their length immediately after planting also encourages the hedge to thicken at the bottomClose quotesHard pruning by about a third to a half of their length immediately after planting also encourages the hedge to thicken at the bottom. It may be heart breaking to cut them back so much, but believe me, they will grow away quickly enough over their first season and do better for it. If you can bring yourself to do it, a second hard pruning during the following winter, once their roots systems have established is also good. I recently did this for a similar mixed hedge which I planted last winter.

The hedge which I planted last winter suffered quite badly from mildew during the summer because I did not water it enough. The combination of the hot dry summer and the dense planting put the plants under a lot of stress, so Open quotesdon't forget to water them well over the early years. You should start by giving them a good dousing as soon as you've planted themClose quotesdon't forget to water them well over the early years. You should start by giving them a good dousing as soon as you've planted them.

It's simple, it's cheap and it doesn't take too much effort. It's dramatic, it's beautiful and the wildlife will absolutely love it. There can hardly be a wildlife gardening project more satisfying than establishing your own hedge.

First published February 2004.
Copyright Richard Burkmar 2004. Permission is hereby granted for anyone to use this article for non-commercial purposes which are of benefit to the natural environment as long the original author is credited. School pupils, students, teachers and educators are invited to use the article freely. Use for commercial purposes is prohibited unless permission is obtained from the copyright holder.

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