Planting a Native Hedge
If you’re thinking about planting a hedge this winter I hope you’re considering planting a native hedge.
Why? Well primarily because of wildlife but also because many of our native hedge plants grow into excellent hedges!
Before you discard this notion – perhaps after seeing many of our uncut or flail-cut farm hedges- I want you to give a native hedge a second chance!
We had a couple of excellent examples at the business we used to own called Cleeve Nursery. These convinced me of the merit of native hedge plants.
The first comprised exclusively field maple [Acer campestre]. It rapidly grew to produce a thick and easily managed hedge of two meters high. In very late autumn the whole hedge turns the colour of the richest butter before the leaves fall off.
The second native hedge was almost entirely made up of hawthorn [Crataegus monogyna]. It is equally dense but of course prickly too. In some areas hawthorn is referred to as ‘Quick Thorn’ or ‘May’. The latter name alludes to the month that an uncut tree will produce masses of white blossom accompanied by a rich and heavy scent. These blooms are then followed by dark red ‘haws’ so loved by migrating Scandinavian thrushes – redwings and fieldfares.
Both the field maple and hawthorn hedges rapidly formed dense nesting places for a very wide range of birds.
Other single species hedges that succeed well are green beech [Fagus sylvatica] and, for wetter soils, hornbeam [Carpinus betulus].
Mix it up!
Whilst single species hedges are very successful and can be easily maintained, it is perhaps more common to plant a mix of native hedge plants together.
A mix is often a stipulation of a planning approval. A good mixture is likely to contain hawthorn, beech, blackthorn [‘sloe’ or Prunus spinosa], field maple, hazelnut [Corylus avellana] and
wayfaring tree [Viburnum lantana]. These are common hedgerow plants in the South West of England. Such a mixture will provide screening and privacy for you. But also food, shelter and breeding places for a very wide range of wild animals, birds, insects and bugs.
When to plant
The native hedge is best planted during winter and certainly before the sap starts to rise in early March.
Plant all but the most vigorous at about 45 cm apart and so a bundle of fifteen plants will fill almost a 6 metre run.
However, I recommend planting in double rows spaced 45cm between each row to get a thicker hedge faster. So the same bundle of young trees is enough for 3m of hedge run.
There is little point in planting extra-large plants [the normal size is 60-90cm high] unless you are attempting to fill a gap in an existing hedge. The normal sized plants will establish quicker and soon catch up with larger ones.
But before planting it is vital to prepare the soil well!
Clear away weeds and remnants of any previous hedge. If the weeds are of the persistent type, it might pay to delay planting a year and concentrate on the removal of bindweed, ground elder, creeping thistles, etc.
Spraying with Resolva 24h or Roundup is the best solution to these hard-to-kill weeds but these sprays need to be absorbed through the leaves which in winter are lacking!
Covering the area with black polythene or thick packing case cardboard to exclude light for a year is an alternative to using chemicals.
After planting care
After planting annual weed competition can be kept in check by adding a 7-8 cm deep organic mulch. This smothers the weeds but also traps in moisture during the first year of establishment.
An alternative is to cover the ground each side of your new native hedge with pegged down black polythene.
The attention to preventing weed and grass competition in the first few years is extremely important to getting good establishment and good growth.
How to plant
When you are sure that the pernicious weeds are under control, you are ready to dig!
Dig the whole length of the hedge line to a spade depth turning in well-rotted compost, farmyard manure or spent mushroom compost.
Mix in a balanced fertiliser too. I especially recommend Vitax Q4 since it is a slow release fertiliser and contains all the major and minor nutrients that your new hedge will need.
Look for plants that have been well grown and have plenty of fibrous [hairy!] roots. They should have been kept moist but not wet until you are ready to plant.
Best plants will have been transplanted several times by the nurseryman. This ensures that the roots are not coarse and do not have tap roots.
Before planting your native hedge, it is worth dusting the roots with Root Grow friendly fungi. This powdered and naturally occurring mycorrhizae will grow on your native hedge plant roots. It will work in symbiosis to produce more vigorous growth in the early years.
Basically, the mycorrhizae vastly increase the surface contact area for extracting nutrients and water from the soil.
Do remove the tops of native hedge plants when planting. It will make the hedge grow more densely. In fact, with perhaps the exception of beech, it pays to cut the tops back by about a third to improve plant establishment.
Subsequent hedge cutting should be regular and may be required more than twice a year – a little and often works best!
It is also well worth trying to keep the top of the hedge narrower than the bottom. This is so that light can reach the bottom and which will help to keep the base thick too.
So, before you plant the ubiquitous conifer ‘leylandii’ – good though it is if well managed- consider native hedge and its wildlife value too!
If you would like to read more about mycorrhizal fungi there is more information here.
If you’d like to make your garden more wildlife friendly read this on gardening for butterflies and moths.