I have many favourite things, but near the top of my list would be the hedge. It is one of the most useful horticultural things you can plant for not only does it divide your garden neatly, it also provides sanctuary for bird and beast, acts as a windbreak, provides privacy, produces fruit, flower or foliage for floral work, and adds a colour dollop of green, red, grey or purple to your landscape. I have, however, often noticed an initial reluctance to the idea of having hedges as there is the belief they are a huge amount of work. True you have to plant them, and true you have to look after them, as you do with any plant, but they give back so much more than they ask of you. Apart from trees, they are the most important structural element you can have in your garden and they just grow better with time, adding an elegance that is hard to achieve any other way. Even in winter, the deciduous varieties have a sculptural quality that still adds visual interest to the garden.
We begin with the ground preparation. As is often the case with gardening, it’s the effort you put into the ‘unseen’ that can make all the difference to the final outcome. To avoid losing money on a sad little hedge that never got going, set aside a realistic amount of time to do it – then double how long you think it will take. By doing this you minimise the taking of shortcuts and the building of possible resentment.
Sort out where the hedge is going to go – use string lines or dazzle to get this right – and spray the area if needed (you may have to do this more than once). It really pays to get the soil as weed free as possible, particularly in the case of perennial weeds, as the hedge is going to be there for a long time and it gets progressively harder to weed amongst it. And then begin digging. If the ground is dry, which can make for ridiculously hard digging, water it well a couple of days beforehand and allow it to drain. Note, if your ground is a bit boggy, then you may need to add some drainage (Novaflo or a soak pit) or plant your hedge plants up higher than the soil level – while this is not ideal, sometimes it is your only choice.
If your soil is heavy, as in a high clay content or compacted, then add gypsum as you dig – it’s great stuff, add it generously. You can also add compost, but spread it over the entire area – I am not a fan of compost being added to just the holes. If your soil is sandy, then you will need compost and/or good screened topsoil.
Pretending we are in an ideal world, you will have done your digging a few months before planting day. This allows the soil to settle before you plant rather than after – it’s amazing how much fluffy soil can sink – and this gives the roots more purchase in the settled soil. You can then top up the soil level if you need to.
Dig as deep as your energy allows, but aim for at least a shovel’s depth. And dig out a decent width so those hedge roots can head out without too much impediment/effort. Rake the soil level. In clay soil I would tend to raise it slightly down the centre line so the plants won’t have water sitting around their base, in sandy soil perhaps dip/ trench it along the centre, so water does funnel down to the roots.
Timing and planting
Ideally plant your hedge when the soil is naturally moist, i.e. in autumn or end of winter/spring. But if this is not possible, you can plant any time of year but will need to put in a bit more effort – avoid waterlogged or frosty soil though. If planting when dry, dig your trench or holes, fill with water and let drain. ‘Bubble’ your hedge plants in a large bucket of water so that there are no dry spots in the root ball, plant, and water in well. Before planting, tease the roots out or, if root-bound, slice the bottom off the root-ball and spread out the roots at the bottom. You may need to cut the new roots up the sides if they are really congested – roots that are circling around the root ball never untangle themselves. I am quite hard on root balls.
Sometimes the top of the plant also needs a trim. Cut it back by a third to a half – I know, I know, you don’t want to cut anything off – but the aim is to have the plant bushy down low, and this training needs to start at the beginning. If your plant is already suitably bushy, then just nip the ends to keep that bushiness continuing.
If you are planting when it’s windy – especially if it’s a hot, dry wind or a cold wind, then you can cover the hedge with windbreak cloth – use bent wire, tent pegs, stones or what you have to hand to weigh it down. Keep the watering happening; to see if it needs water, dig a small hole with an implement to see how moist it is. I will just note here that watering is crucial at this early stage and, as usual, a deep water is required rather than just a lackadaisical sprinkling.
Mulch after planting – keep the mulch away from the base of the plants though.
For smaller hedges, such as buxus, plant approximately 25cm apart. For medium-sized hedges, such as escallonia, plant about 60cm apart and for bigger hedges, such as Portugese laurel, plant at 1m.
Hedges can be planted in a single row or a staggered double row (useful if a really dense hedge or windbreak is required).
Buying your hedge plants
If you are planning on putting in a longish hedge, then it would pay to order your plants in advance from a nursery, as come planting time they may all have been snaffled up. This also means that they will all be all the same size and age, which is desirable. While it is tempting to go for the biggest plants – as when you want a hedge, you want it now – I suggest you go for a smaller grade which will not only be less expensive, but will also settle in and start growing quicker. If you are putting in a deciduous hedge such as hornbeam, then it is cheaper to buy bare-rooted plants that come into the nurseries in winter. Warning: on no account let the roots dry out before planting happens, get the plants in the pre-prepared soil asap.
Choice of plants
The main considerations are what height you want the hedge to finally be, do you want deciduous or evergreen and what is suitable hedge material for your area. As with planting trees, do believe that innocent little plant may indeed grow in to the monster it says on the label, and maybe choose an alternative plant. Also check what width the hedge will attain – an important consideration if the hedge is by a flower bed or vege garden (beware of shade or hungry roots).
Think about whether you want your hedge to be formal (closely clipped) or informal (lightly clipped or not clipped at all). Hedges can be also made into interesting shapes such as ‘cloud’ hedges or have bits cut out like crenulations, or they could be multi-coloured. If you do opt for a two-toned hedge, check that the growth-rates of the two varieties are the same so that your hedge grows evenly. Use your imagination to create your own unique hedge.
Find out if the hedge you want to plant is a fast or slow grower, so you know what time frame you are looking at to achieve your mature hedge.
Handy garden hedging plants
- Abelia x grandiflora – small dark-green/bronzy leaves. Pinky-white flowers.
- Buxus – box; several varieties (ask in your area if buxus blight is a problem).
- Camellia – use the sasanqua varieties for hedging with smaller leaves and good sun tolerance.
- Carpinus betulus – hornbeam; makes a goodlooking strong hedge.
- Corokia – a small-leaved evergreen native that comes in greeny/grey or chocolate.
- Escallonia – a handy medium-sized hedge with white, pink or red flowers.
- Eugenia ventenatii – lilly pilly; glossy evergreen leaves.
- Euonymus – includes ‘Emerald Gem’, which can be used as a substitute for box.
- Fagus sylvatica – beech; comes in green and purple.
- Feijoa – a good fruiting hedge with grey-green leaves.
- Griselinia – broadleaf; nice apple-green leaves.
- Ilex – holly; particularly ‘J.C. van Tol’ which is non-prickly.
- Lonicera nitida – honeysuckle box; looks good when clipped, but you need to commit to this one to keep it tidy.
- Murraya paniculata – a good evergreen hedge for frost-free areas.
- Photinia – gives a strong green and red hedge.
- Prunus lusitanica – Portugese laurel; a big darkgreen evergreen hedge.
- Prunus laurocerasus – cherry laurel; oldfashioned, but merits more use.
- Taxus baccata – yew (slow, but oh so handsome).
- Teucrium – small grey leaf, requires cutting often.
- Viburnum tinus – particularly ‘Eve Price’ or ‘Lucidum’, both have pretty flowers.
Many plants can be used to make a hedge but check on whether they like to be cut into before committing to them.
Most hedges don’t get thought about much in winter, but keep an eye on your evergreen hedges as they can get surprisingly dry in winter – have a scratch around every so often to check whether this is happening.
Feed your hedges at the end of winter to set them up for the growing season to come. I use a granulated slow-release fertiliser. I don’t add any fertiliser when I initially plant the hedge, it doesn’t need it until the roots get going properly so wait a year until you start feeding it.
Depending on the variety you have planted, you may be cutting the hedge anything from one to six times a year. Usually the faster the growth, the more it has to be clipped. A rule of thumb is to cut your hedge after the first flush of growth in spring when the leaves and branchlets have started to harden a bit. You can do it again if needed in early autumn. If you have a fast grower such as Teucrium or Escallonia, you will need to cut more often so just do it when you need to.
If your hedge is a flowering one such as a camellia, then prune immediately after flowering has finished.
When cutting your hedge, keep your hedge wider at the bottom than at the top – this lets light into the base and helps avoid bare patches.
Where I can, my choice of hedge plant will be one that can be cut back hard if needed. I like the insurance of being able to renovate and re-shape a hedge that may be in need of remedial work.
If you do have a hedge that has grown too big or looks ungainly, you can whack it right back, feed and water it, and begin retraining it with clipping or nipping. If it is a big hedge, such as a cherry laurel, and you want to still have some hedge to look at, you can do one side at a time. Wait until the cut branches sprout and are underway before cutting back the other side. This method is also ‘gentler’ on a big hedge.
When your hedge has reached its desired proportions, bask in its glory and feel justifiably proud; a well-grown hedge is a thing of beauty and it’s not over-stating things to say that it will add value to both your life and your property.