When we moved here there was a very new, mixed, native hedge that had been planted by the previous owner to cover a rather ugly crash barrier, it runs up the side of a concrete ramp/driveway, the other side is a steep bank that we see from the house. (The bank is another gardening issue, we still haven’t found much that likes it except for ash and pussy/goat willow saplings, couch grass and hog weed!) I found some old photos from 2007, after I started the ‘pruning’ in 2005 or so.
The hedge posed several challenges right from the start.
1 how to make it into a thick wildlife harbouring hedge as quickly as possible
2 how to cover the ugly but practical crash barrier
3 how to actually get to the bank side
We thought about ordinary pruning, in fact I did that the first year, horrified at the amount of plant cut off and the length of time it would take to make a proper hedge, seeing as the trunk diameters were less than 2cm!
I remembered something about roses that I’d heard somewhere or other, that you just pull them down below the horizontal rather than prune. So I started with the dog roses and either later that day or the next year I reckoned that it couldn’t do any harm to do that for the others too. You can see in the middle picture the horizontal branches/twigs. For the first few years it was really hard work. I had to tie almost everything to something, I used string and wire, the wire is a lot easier you can have a bit in your mouth ready while you pull the branches into place. But I cut a lot less growth off and that means that the hedge must have been getting thicker.
After a couple of years a friend said we should lay it, but that needs quite thick trunks (2 to 4 inches), and for it not to be cut for a year so you have the height (about 2 m), we don’t need more shade on the house. I think they might be thick enough now, but today when I started it seems a lot easier, so I’m glad we made the decision not to lay it at least at the moment.
Our hedge contains some beautiful plants, some would turn into quite big trees if we let them, I am leaving a Field Maple at the top end, you can see how it was a few years ago below, the radial pattern of bare branches sticking out of the top, not sure why those lost their leaves first!
There are also Hazel a couple of types of green and a purple variety, Wild Service, Hawthorn, Dog Rose, Spindle and an apple, which may have been sowed by a bird. The whole thing is lovely all have beauty of their own, you can see the dog roses flowering in the picture on the right, sometimes they will go on for weeks, this year in the heat they were all over in a couple of days, but the hips are great at this time of year.
Wild Service has white flat bunches of flowers a little like a climbing hydrangea, red berries and lovely red leaves in the Autumn, though not quite yet this year.
Spindle is pretty nondescript, and having seen a tree near Bristol last year not a great looking tree, very spindly! But it has the most surreal flowers/berries now, they are almost fluorescent pink. I have to be careful with this one when bending it into the hedge, they are brittle even in full growth and so snap very easily.
The hazels produce quite a lot of nuts, I suppose because I am not cutting off the catkins, which ripen over the winter to pollinate the tiny flowers in the spring. We have 2 active squirrels this year and they seem to have got most of them. Last year I picked a basketful early, left them in their shells to ripen and cracked and ate them at Christmas.
The Hawthorn and Rose are quite dangerous when working on it, 2 hours yesterday left me covered in scratches and the odd painful puncture!
So to the main point of this post!
HOW TO MAINTAIN A NATIVE MIXED HEDGE, without using a powered hedge trimmer…
WHAT YOU NEED…
First get a good pair of secateurs, I love my anvil set, they can go in the back pocket without digging holes in it, very useful when trying to hold branches in place and tie at the same time,
A good thick pair of gloves, though they often have to be removed to tie or twist wire,
A pair of loppers for use on the really thick stuff, not very useful as often you can’t get in to the bit you want to so…
A small pruning saw,
Lots of strong nylon string and/or wire, I found an old length of stiff telephone/alarm cable that is fabulous and can be split into two wires,
Time, at first it took me a good 4 or 5 days work, now a lot less, probably about 10 hours altogether. We do have a long hedge I reckon over 20 metres!
WHEN TO DO IT…
I like to do it before the leaves fall, it’s easier to see which tree you’re dealing with and you can easily see any dead bits, if they are in the way or look ugly get them out, otherwise leave them as habitat. The branches seem to be a little less liable to break, they still have sap in I suppose. The hips and berries are still on the hedge, but you’re not cutting much off so the wildlife won’t loose too much. Here in Wales that works out to be in the couple of weeks before half term.
HOW TO DO IT…
Firstly tuck in all the small stuff, start at the bottom of the hedge, try to pull all the new growth back into the hedge, in early years I had to tie it in. I didn’t want to have a festoon of string so I tried to gather a few together and tie them. Which way a twig bends into the hedge will become obvious, a few will break under the strain especially as you get to the thicker ones. After 8 years most tucking in is literally that, there are enough stems in the body of the hedge to push twigs behind, some springy ones still need to be tied, and there are thinner parts of the hedge where there is nothing to wedge a branch behind. Try to tie to strong looking vertical growth, sometimes you can tie bits you are bending over from 2 different directions to each other in the middle, useful with the roses. These pics show half of one side, you can see the barrier slightly obscured half way down, how the twigs weave in and a stray rose waiting to be tied in.
Work along the hedge in both directions (unlike laying a hedge which is done all in one direction), so you make sensible decisions about which way each twig is going, I figure that the birds like it best the thicker and more dense it is in the middle, yesterday I had company from a juvenile robin. Walk up and down it and look at it from a few feet away to make sure you’re filling any gaps.
Runners that are growing straight up – rather than bend over the top of the hedge try to find it further down, get your arm in and pull it down from within the hedge. As you bend it over in the midst of the hedge it should sprout shoots from the leaf nodes producing upright growth, just like when a hedge is laid.
Some branches will break completely, just cut them off, others that split partially, especially roses, will often continue to grow well, so don’t worry too much. You can cut the dead growth out next year if it does die.
Do it in stages, it is quite tiring, especially when it comes to working on the hard to get to side! I have developed a way of hanging on to certain plants (I’m 10 foot up at the highest part of the bank), not the best plan and I will have to start trimming at least the back with a powered trimmer as I get older, but for now hanging on seems the best way. I’ve tried various ladder arrangements, tied to bank like a roofer etc but they felt less safe than hanging on… Except for the very bottom end where the ground is flat and the hedge not too tall where I can use a ladder, (picture above). I don’t wear my usual garden attire of wellies for this job, walking shoes with a good grip are best. I also make sure that someone is around when I do the high bits, just in case I fall I don’t want to be stuck for hours with a broken bone!
WHY DO IT…
Just look at the difference, this hedge was planted at the same time, admittedly it doesn’t have quite the variety of plants in it, but this has been trimmed once a year since we have been here, (it is looked after by the neighbour that shares the boundary). What a difference, and although I can’t see this one from my window I doubt it has the same appeal for the birds.
It’s a few days later now and I have done about 3/4 of the job, in about 12 hours in total, dodging between the rain, just the really high bit of the bank side to do, that’ll have to wait now ’til after half term so I will update with some pictures then, probably with a lack of leaves as they are just starting to turn.
So finally for this post, although the job isn’t finished a picture of the bottom end all done, this year the view from our dining room window and the view in 2009 when we hadn’t finished renovating with a car partially hidden for scale, compared to 6 years ago, a startling difference!