Hedging Your Bets

Have you ever thought about planting a wildlife hedge in your garden? There are many reasons why a hedge would be a great asset. Not only would it provide essential forage for wildlife, but it can also bring beauty and abundant harvest your way. Intrigued? Read on…

Words: Sarah at The Garden Creative

Many of us choose fences as boundaries to our gardens: they are generally cost-effective and keep our pets from roaming. We think of hedgerows as taking a long time to reach maturity, often being too large for the spaces we have, and more like something we see in the countryside bordering fields.

Maybe it’s time to rethink hedges and see if you can make space for one of these important habitats.

Hedgerows provide everything wildlife needs to thrive, from a safe nesting place to a diverse food source for mammals and insects. Healthy hedges also mean healthy people, as they protect us against pollution and improve the look and feel of our outdoor spaces, creating shelter from the wind and reducing noise levels.

It doesn’t matter if you already have fences in place, as a hedge can be planted in front of them. If space is minimal, it can be kept trimmed so it doesn’t extend too far and it doesn’t have to be long: just a metre or two of mixed native hedge is going to have a huge impact on the wildlife visiting your garden.

What is a wildlife hedge?

A hedge is simply a row of shrubs and small trees planted closely to form a boundary or screen. By keeping it trimmed (avoid nesting times) the framework of the plants becomes dense, creating the perfect safe place for small birds to roost and nest, especially sparrows, wrens and robins.

Choosing native deciduous shrubs like hawthorn, blackthorn and wild rose provides nectar for insects, and berries for birds and mammals. The hedge can provide shelter and nesting space for hedgehogs, shrews, mice and voles.

Grasses, weeds and wildflowers which grow at the base will also provide space for frogs, toads, newts and lizards, and much-needed nectar early in the year for bees and other pollinators. Primroses, for example, will grow at the base of hedges as will dog violets, snowdrops, red campion, garlic mustard and knapweed.

The insects the hedge attracts provides food for many mammals including the pipistrelle bat.

What’s my hedge for?

To attract the most wildlife it’s better to have a diverse hedge, so rather than have a hedge made from just one plant, use five or six different plants.

There are options depending on what you want to get from your hedge. If you love making your own jams or flavoured gin, then include blackthorn (for sloes), damson, crab apple and blackberry.

If you want to create a screen that is more evergreen to hide something unsightly or to create privacy all year round, then think about mixing holly, ivy, yew and wild privet.

If nuts are your thing, include cobnuts and hazel and, if you fancy foraging, why not choose elder and dog rose for your very own elderflowers and rosehips?

For a flowering hedge, try a combination of ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ hawthorn, blackthorn, cherry plum, elder ‘Black Lace’, and rosa rugosa.

After two or three years, add climbers to sprawl about like wild honeysuckle or clematis (these will reduce the vigour of the hedge if planted when the hedge is just establishing).

If you have a very windy garden or a busy road outside, consider planting a hedge as a shelter belt or to reduce traffic noise. Dense evergreen plants like holly and yew are good for this.

Planting a hedge

Planting your hedge is very easy. When you have identified the area you’d like to use, clear weeds, grass or existing plants and dig down about the depth of a spade to loosen the soil. If the soil is very dense or hard, mix in some fresh compost or topsoil so that you can backfill the holes easily.

Hedging plants can be purchased at any time of year. During the winter they are available as bare roots. This means that when you buy your plants, they won’t have any soil around the roots or be in a pot. They are dormant at this stage. This is the cheapest way to buy deciduous hedging. You can choose the height that you’d like your bare root plants to be. The taller they get, the bushier they get too, and cost more so consider your budget and how quickly you want to wait for the hedge to grow. Most plants will grow about 30cm a year, some much more than this, like elder.

You will need three to five individual plants per metre length of hedge you are planting. This can be in a straight line or a staggered row, which ultimately creates a deeper hedge, so three plants behind and two in front in the gaps. Mix up the different species you are using and continue with your mix like this, repeating your plants for the length you desire.

You can use canes and protective tubes if the plants are tall and need support or if you know you have rabbits, or pets that might try and chew the new plants. Water along the row thoroughly and if you can, mulch around the new plants with some compost, straw, cardboard or rotted woodchip to help suppress weeds and retain moisture around the roots.

Keep your hedge watered several times a week (not so necessary in winter as the plants are dormant but keep an eye on them and increase watering in spring) and clear weeds from underneath for the first two years to allow the plants their best shot at establishing without competition. After this, plant under the hedge and add climbers if desired.

If you are planting at any other time of year, the plants will be potted and the advice is the same except watering will be more essential as the plants are actively growing. This also applies to an evergreen hedge.

Where to plant my hedge?

A hedge can be used in many ways in the garden. It doesn’t have to go at the end or around the edges. It can be a beautiful green or flowering screen to divide different sections of the garden. It can create privacy for dining or sunbathing, edge boundaries between lawns and vegetable gardens, or create a centrepiece by circling a birdbath, sculpture or large urn. A hedge can hide an unsightly fence or wall and, if you have space, you could even use a hedge to create a maze!

Cutting a hedge

Some considerations have to be given when cutting. As we know, the hedge has to be pruned in order to keep the framework dense and provide a safe space for birds and mammals and to stop it from becoming too large. But there will be times when cutting will be detrimental to wildlife, for example during nesting times, so the best time to prune your hedge is in winter. If it is necessary at another time, check for nests and think about using hand shears rather than noisy machinery.

If you want to get the most out of the flowers in the hedge, and indeed the fruit, then don’t prune too often, maybe every two years, and always in winter to allow the flowers to turn to fruit. Allow the hedge at least 5cm of new growth each year rather than cutting back to the same place. You can allow some plants to grow into small trees that extend above the height of the rest of the hedge. This can look very attractive and provide taller perches and cover for birds and squirrels.

Leave leaf litter at the bottom of the hedge to provide shelter for insects and spiders. When foraging from the hedge for yourself, remember to take only what you need and leave plenty for birds and squirrels.

Native wildlife hedge plants:

Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Field Maple, Dog Rose, Hazel, Elder, Silver Birch, Spindle, Holly, Buckthorn

Where to buy your mixed native hedge:

Locally: Edible Culture, Faversham

As a garden designer, I often design hedges into gardens as they are a very easy way to create a beautiful screen and provide essential habitats for our wildlife that is so under threat right now from habitat destruction and negative human intervention. By giving nature a safe home in our gardens, we can be part of nature conservation.

If you would like to talk to me about a wildlife garden or creating a beautiful outdoor space, call 07725 055701 or email sarah@thegardencreative.com

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