Hedging your bets

The fabulous changing colours of my beech hedge, which keeps its copper leaves over winter.
The fabulous changing colours of my beech hedge, which keeps its copper leaves over winter.
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Make the most of your boundaries with a striking hedge and create a haven for wildlife.

NOVEMBER’s a perfect month for planting a new hedge.

Even though it takes time (and effort) for one to reach maturity, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

I was lucky enough to “inherit” a beech and hawthorn hedge, now about 45 years old, around most of my garden.

While the hawthorn does increase the biodiversity, it also grows a lot faster than the beech – and it’s prickly. Since our garden is on the end of the street, the hedge faces a public path, meaning we have to keep on top of the cutting.

Since it’s eight feet high in places, this is not an easy job.

The first cut usually happens in May, when the old beech leaves, which are kept on the plants during winter, finally get pushed off by new growth.

It’s a two-person job involving electric shears and stepladders on a slope (not a good combination).

Although we do this, we’ve bitten the bullet and get a professional hedge cutter in each August, when it has virtually stopped growing.

This keeps it neat and tidy thoughout winter and his expertise means the growth has thickened up at the base, leading to a much better shape.

Beech provides a lovely background to other plants, with its fresh green leaves in spring, slowly darkening during summer to turn yellow, orange and copper in autumn.

It’s also great to grow other shrubs into it (it means you don’t have to cut where they are). My favourite combinations are Fatsia japonica (pictured left), variegated Weigela and Cotinus, the purple-leaved smoke bush.

The hedge is home to a variety of birdlife – blackbirds, robins and a host of sparrows, who love using any twigs I’ve missed as a lookout.

Of course, if you don’t want to use cutters at all, there is another alternative, a natural hedge.

One has evolved on a shady boundary with my neighbour, based around a heavy trellis, using climbers and shrubs.

There’s a mix of Clematis montana Elizabeth, native honeysuckle (with red berries in winter), buddleia, lavatera (everlasting pea) and pyracantha Orange Glow. All it requires is the odd trim with secateurs.

A word of warning – hedges cast shade and sap the soil. It sounds obvious, but bear this in mind, especially if you’re planting one that faces north or east. You are going to be very restricted in your planting choices for dry shade!