The hedges that we are so familiar with in the British countryside and other parts of Europe not only shape the landscape, they are also a valuable habitat and feeding ground for all types of wildlife.
A mixture of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and climbers - they flower and fruit, provide shelter and a rich variety of different types of foliage. If the right plants are chosen the hedgerow can be adapted to suit many gardens and can either be clipped and controlled or left to grow naturally. Most will eventually make large shrubs or small trees.
Native hedging is usually planted as young bare root “whips”; single stem transplants lifted during the late autumn and winter and planted before early spring. These are easy to handle and inexpensive to buy.They do not have to be planted as a hedge. Some are ideal in groups of three or five, planted 60cm (2ft) apart left to grow into large transitional shrubs to join a rural garden with the surrounding landscape.
The mainstay of any native hedging mix is hawthorn, Crateagus monogyna. This tough plant is wind and salt tolerant, so ideal in exposed and coastal situations. The branched growth gives excellent shelter to wild birds and other wildlife and the thorny stems offer protection. It has good foliage which colours in autumn. White spring flowers, attractive to bees and other pollinators, are followed by dark red fruits that the birds appreciate. A single plant will grow to form an excellent small tree or a closely planted group of three whips make an attractive multi-stemmed specimen.
The clouds of white blossom that appear in native hedgerows in early spring arte the flowers of Prunus spinosa, blackthorn. In autumn these are followed by blue-black sloes, gathered by foragers to flavour gin. This is a tough, thorny shrub, often slow to start but quickly producing a dense thicket of dark stems. Excellent where an impenetrable barrier is required, but not pleasant to handle. Avoid planting in near horses as the thorns can be a problem if they eat it.
Hazel, Corylus avellana is often used in native hedging because it grows quickly. However it is upright in habit, tends to be bare at the base when it matures and does not contribute to the density of a hedge. It is a great subject to coppice and is good planted in groups as a transitional shrub. It can be cut back to the ground every few years and then allowed to grow into attractive multi-stemmed shrubs draped in golden catkins in spring.
One of the best native shrubs, Viburnum opulus is often wasted in a hedgerow if it is cut hard during the winter months. Left alone it has white lacecap flowers in spring, wonderful autumn foliage colour and drooping clusters of redcurrant-like fruits that birds love. This is perfect planted as a group of three whips where they will develop into a large, loose shrub; perfect for a paddock or in meadow grass. Many would argue that the native hedging plant id far more attractive than the garden cultivars.
The spindle, Euonymus europaeus on the other hand puts on an amazing autumn display whether allowed to grow naturally or trimmed as a hedge. The flowers are insignificant, the fruit capsules bright pink. Splitting to reveal orange seeds; an amazing sight with the crimson-pink fall foliage. An excellent choice for chalk and clay soils where the colour and fruit production are at their best. It was commonly known as skewer wood because the straight green stems were used as butchers’ skewers.
Also particularly good on alkaline soils, Cornus sanguinea, a variety of dogwood has well branched twigs, green at the tips and dark red at the base. Clusters of small white flowers are good for pollinators. The foliage turns rich shade of red and burgundy in autumn.
Evergreens are few in countryside hedges. Holly, Ilex aquifolium is the most commonly used and it is an excellent wildlife plant, both for the berries and the tiny flowers which are an excellent food source for insects. This is usually planted as a pot grown subject rather than bare root. Yew grows particularly well on alkaline soils but should be avoided where there is livestock.
One of the main constituents of mature hedges, the common ivy, Hedera helix can appear the smother other subjects. However ivy provides one of the best natural food sources and habitats and where it is not causing a problem should be left alone.
Where space allows dog rose, Rosa canina, is a lovely addition for its fragrant flowers and long lasting orange-red hips. The thorny stems make an excellent barrier but can be challenging if control is needed.
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