Why did planting a hedge drop off the gardener’s to do list? Could it be because hedges have a reputation for being high maintenance thanks to all that clipping, guided by a string line and template. Look it up if you want to know how to achieve a finish where the hand of man is very, very evident: I’m not going to explain here. And that’s because there are ways to have a hedge that’s actually low maintenance. I’ll explain the theory at the end, but let’s start with the pictures…
What’s a hedge? This may seem like a ridiculous question, but it’s worth answering early on. I think of a hedge as any row of plants, growing in line, and planted close together so that you can’t push through them easily. If you think of English hedgerows, which were planted as living fences for ancient farm fields, you get the idea. Take a look at the photo above and you can see how impossible it would be to get through a hedge this high and thick if the gated entrance hadn’t been cut through it.
Mixed up hedges. Purists would say a hedge is not a hedge if it’s made up of more than one type of plant. But mixed hedges have been around for ages (see above); they boost biodiversity (which is to say wildlife); and they look lovely in a different way. There are also two significant practical advantages: 1. if one of the plants in your hedge dies, you can replace it without worrying about ‘matching the patch’, and; 2. if you already have a row of hedge-able plants spaced out along a fenceline, it’s fast and easy to plant between them and then clip everything together to form a hedge.
The tyranny of clipping. It’s easy to assume that a hedge must be trimmed into flat planes of perfection. But not all hedges must look like that. If you’re ok with something more freeform (check out this ancient and much photographed hedge, above, in Essex), you’ll still need to grab your clippers every six months, but you won’t need any string lines or templates. Or if you’re keen on as little maintenance as possible, then just let things pretty much alone and give your hedge space to grow into a loose barrier, occasionally nipping away at any sparse bits to encourage some extra sprouting and growth to cover the bald spots.
What about some colour? I’m not sure what this hedge actually is but I’ve added it here to point out that plants with seasonal colour can be used as a powerful landscaping tool. Think of it a bit like putting colourful slip-covers on your sofa to pep up your living room.
What about flowers? Ditto flowers. Who wouldn’t want a hedge that’s nice and green and leafy all the time, and then covers itself in flowers for a few weeks each year? There are lots of plant options to use like this Fairy Magnolia (above), evergreen roses are good candidates (the thorns make an effective barrier, if that’s what you’re after), or try camellias.
Hedges do stuff. If you stop and think about it, a hedge can do a lot in the garden. It can simply act as a green barrier between your space and the outside world, dampening road noise and on an emotional level, make you feel more removed and safer. It’s a softer, greener boundary treatment where a fence or wall might be a bit harsh and in your face. And as a landscape tool, it can direct views (see above, taken in an extraordinary garden managed by the Imperial Household Agency, Japan).
Hedges can be short. Technically a short hedge should probably be called garden edging, but hey. This minimalist example shows how a short hedge functions – it helps keep everything where it should be. If you’re bothered by worm-hunting blackbirds kicking mulch onto your paths, then try planting a mini hedge at the front of your garden beds.
Hedges and gates go together. It doesn’t matter what sort of hedge you have – how tall or short, dense or sparse – gates look fabulous set into them (see above and below.)
Front hedges give something to the street. I love this shot (below). It’s an ordinary street where the footpath probably heats up in summer thanks to the fact that there aren’t any street trees. I imagine that if you were walking down this road, you’d probably find your spirits rise as you reached this stretch. The owners of the hedge must be happy too, because their house has serious curb appeal, and their garden greets them before they’ve even walked in the gate. If I had an ugly mesh fence out front, I’d plant long-blooming Flower Carpet roses up through it too.
Finally, how to grow a low maintenance hedge. Assume we’re starting from scratch…
1. Dig a trench along the line of your future hedge, removing debris, loosening the soil and adding in some compost if you can: the idea here is to give each of your hedge plants the same conditions so that they grow evenly.
2. Choose unfussy plants for your hedge, and check that they will happily grow where you plan to plant them: ie ask yourself if the plants you’ve picked will thrive with the existing amount of sun & shade, salt spray & wind or whatever. Also check that they will grow to the size you want because you don’t want to have to clip them back constantly just to be able to put the bins out.
3. Water your plants while they are still in their pots, the night before planting day: and plant them out on a day that won’t be a scorcher, then water them in again.
4. Mulch the entire hedgeline, as weeds will set back your new hedge’s growth – seriously.
5. For the next eight weeks, water twice a week so that the whole hedge gets a good even soaking. A basic soaker hose attached to your tap with a egg-timer style controller is a cheap and easy way to establish plants.
6. And when you think the time is right, lightly tip prune your plants along the front and back face of your hedge, but never between plants as that’s where you want them to become enmeshed and impenetrable. And from here on, clip only if you want.