There are hedges and then there are hedges loved by wildlife. In this, (quite long), guest post by my friend Gillian Rooke she discusses some of the things that go towards a hedge designed to really attract wildlife.
Guest Post by Gillian Rooke
So many people now are looking out into their gardens and seeing only a lawn surrounded by close boarded fencing. Perhaps in a tiny town garden this is understandable, but in a long garden that could be beautiful? More people seem to be into minimalism now, which is fine indoors, but nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum. I am not a minimalist. I love intricate shapes and interesting textures. Horses for courses of course; and there is one way of making a minimalist garden that is good for wildlife:- replacing the fencing with hedging.
Hedging is gaining in popularity by leaps and bounds at the moment, which is very encouraging. Even I can find a striped lawn surrounded only by hedges exciting and uplifting. There is something about the angle of the green, going suddenly from horizontal to vertical that makes the senses swirl. And the things that one can imagine existing beyond a hedge are far more romantic, than anything one might find behind a fence.
Also hedges can be taller, Putting up a close boarded fence over six foot in height, requires very strong foundations, and neighbours and even the council can condemn it as an eyesore, whereas a neatly cut hedge can go on up to ten foot in a front garden. Very few people object to a huge ornamental hedge. I have seen them with crenulations and windows; really fantastic.
Of course in a back garden where the hedge is a boundary you need a neighbour that also loves hedges because he will have to cut his side, or let you on his land to do it. It makes a very good talking point though, especially if you plan between you what plants you would like to use.
Before advising on the planting I had better say a word about the wildlife of a hedge. As you probably know, hedges in the countryside are arguably the most important wildlife habitat. You have the two essentials side by side for miles: deep thick cover, and long grasses and flowers. A hedge provides the best cover of all habitats. Because the outside is cut back, the branches thicken up and make better supports; a strong framework for nests, and the leaves on the outside are very close together providing an excellent screen.
This green cathedral is a sanctuary for wildlife of all kinds, from the monkey-pea, and exotic species of millipede and centipede that delight in the rich black leaf mould, through the spider species with webs of all kinds, catching the aphids and all the small wasps midges and flies, to the reptiles and amphibians and the burrowing mammals that can find a permanent undisturbed home here, among the rows of dark pillars that rise from the mould. And then, higher where the pillars turn into vaulted arches, you find our most beautiful song birds living the safest and most productive lives that are to be found anywhere. Large predators cannot penetrate a well kept hedge, nor can torrential rains wash nests away or wild winds destroy them.
So why not create something so beautiful and so needed as a hedge? Here’s how…
Field hedges tend to be mostly of hawthorn blackthorn or hazel. The first two are good for domestic hedges which abut a road, because they are deciduous and the lower branches don’t get so messed up by traffic. Also of course they flower which is nice. But these hedges, because they are trees not shrubs are looser than you would really want in a neat garden. The twigs are just that much too thick to be cut well by domestic hedging shears, and the leaves aren’t very pretty.
Everyone is familiar with the deep green velvety texture of the evergreen Leyland hedge, but this although very beautiful has the one big drawback that it is very fast growing, and needs to be cut so very frequently. If you can afford it or can take to time to grow it, a yew hedge is even more beautiful and much easier to manage.
Two non coniferous trees which make superb hedges are beech and the evergreen holly oak. They are quicker to establish than yew and make equally good tall hedges. However when using trees for hedging, you have to consider the width of the trunks, and the spread of the roots. These hedges will spread outwards and may end up, in fifty years or so, as much as eight foot thick. Also you shouldn’t plant forest trees close to the house, even if you are going to be cutting them back all the time. While they are fantastic hedges; the beech keeping its rich brown leaves all winter and the hollyoak turning bright silvery yellow with its new leaves, they are not; because of this thickening, suitable for gardens of less than half an acre.
In smaller gardens it is better to use shrub hedging rather than trees.
The smallest and daintiest hedge of all is the European Box, Buxus sempervirens. This is most often used as a tiny hedge for dividing beds from paths, for making divisions within herb beds, and most famously for topiary. It is very slow growing with tiny leaves and so is capable of being shaped in great detail. It is actually a small tree, and left to its own devices will grow to thirty feet or more. The fact that it has a trunk, and a very strong one, makes it possible to create fantastic and durable living sculptures.
Another hedge which is very similar in appearance to the box is the Lonicera nitida, but while it looks the same, as a clipped hedge, its habit is completely different. It grows very rapidly and is difficult to keep clipped although it does make a very smoothly sculpted surface. The drawback of this little honeysuckle is the weakness of its stems and their habit of twisting round each other, which means that as you are pruning one section you can be killing branches in a completely different section. Also it is prone to collapsing and needs to have a post and rails to keep it upright if you want it as a sizeable hedge, or a permanent armature if you are using it as topiary. It has another even worse drawback, in that bits keep coming up where you don’t want them. As with all the other green hedges a golden version is also available, and marbled in with the green it can produce a striking effect.
Flowering hedges. Many people may be surprised to learn that privet has a flower. Unpruned it makes a bush of up to eight foot which is covered in summer with white frothy floppy candles with a delightful strong heady scent. Unfortunately it is impossible to keep it in any semblance of a clipped hedge and still retain the flowering.
One that everyone knows is the Forsythia, with its brilliant yellow flowers in early spring. This does flower very well as a hedge and indeed it should always be pruned fairly closely. However it is deciduous and the branches show twigs between the leaves even in summer. It is really rather unattractive when not in flower.
Most of our garden shrubs have an inverted conical habit. They grow up on many long stalks which fan out into a wide, domed area of leaves and flowers. You could shape the top of them loosely into an elongated hedge but there would be nothing but bare branches close to the ground. However by putting a flowerbed at the base of these plants to hide the bare stalks, you could use the height of plants such as philadelphus or wigelia or lilac as a continuous barrier hedge. This type of hedging is useful if you have a boundary wall which is not quite high enough to provide privacy. However these plants do not cut back strictly as a hedge and although they should be pruned, they should also have space to ‘billow’ a bit, and of course flower.
My favourite flowering hedges are the Berberis .There are two main types of which there are various cultivars. Berberis thunbergii is a short usually purple leaved variety, (atropurpurea) with yellow flowers. It makes a neat attractive hedge up to four foot, which is almost as beautiful when not in flower. Berberis Darwinii has thinner glossier leaves which are usually at least partly retained through the winter, and deeper orange flowers which make a solid wall of colour. It is an altogether tougher, stronger growing plant and can be self supporting to six foot in a sheltered location. Berberis are also useful for keeping trespassers out because they are thorny.
There are also some pretty hedges grown for their leaf colour. Choisya is usually found with a golden leaf and it also has a nice white flower. Aucuba the spotted laurel is very famous, although with its large leaves it is difficult to shape, Photinia fraseri red robin, is a wonderful plant although it is also difficult to clip. It makes a barrier rather than a hedge.
With all this choice, (and I’ve only named a fraction) of planting, and of course you can mix and match, who wouldn’t want to look out on a hedge rather than a close boarded fence?
With a hedge you have the beauty of seasonal colour changes, but best of all you will see goldfinches, long tailed tits, linnets etc etc flying out of your hedge to your bird table and you will know that they are nesting, part of your family, sharing your space, and not flying in perhaps from miles away to grab a few mouthfuls and try to keep their distant chicks from starving.
Next time I will tackle Wildflower lawn versus wildflower meadow.