How to Swap Your Fence for a Wildlife-friendly Hedge
On the fence about planting a hedge? Read our expert advice to find out more about creating a natural boundary
Keen to find out more? We asked three garden experts to share their knowledge, tips and advice for choosing and planting the perfect garden hedge.
Professional advice from: Rebecca Smith of Rebecca Smith Garden Design & Consultancy; Jane Ashley of Jane Ashley Garden Design; Katy Fielding, Hedgerow Heritage project manager for Surrey Wildlife Trust
“Hedges can make a wonderful contribution to the beauty of your garden, as well as provide significant benefits for wildlife and the environment,” Jane Ashley says
“A British native hedgerow can offer so much,” Katy Fielding agrees. “As a food source, it can provide a vital supply of early pollen and nectar in spring, right through to brambles in the autumn and everything in between.
“As well as the wildlife aspect, hedgerows also offer a wealth of wider ecological benefits,” she continues. “Hedging plants are great at capturing carbon, for example, as well as holding water back on land, so they can help to guard against flooding.” Jane adds that some species can also help to improve air quality “by providing a barrier that traps pollution particles”.
Then there are the aesthetics of planting hedges. “They bring more calming and attractive greenery into your garden,” Jane says. “And you can also make use of their deceptive potential – they can help to disguise where your garden ends, as the view of the hedge can blend into the ‘borrowed landscape’ of trees beyond.”
The first question to ask yourself is whether your hedge’s main purpose is privacy, security or largely decorative. Each of these factors will influence the type of hedge you ultimately choose, as will whether you want a formal or informal look in your garden.
The width and height of the hedge is also a big consideration. Rebecca Smith suggests thinking about how much space there is for one and asking yourself if you have room for it to grow wider. She recommends checking to see how tall your chosen plants will eventually grow, too, as some could quickly get too big for a regular garden.
Jane also suggests considering the speed of growth of a hedge before planting, “bearing in mind the trade-off between quick establishment in the short term and maintenance issues in the longer term.”
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Most hedges will need to be pruned annually to maintain their size and shape, Rebecca says. They may also need feeding once established to keep them looking their best. Jane agrees, and also adds that they’ll need frequent watering in their first year of planting, too.
“Hedgerow management is essential, but we advise people to manage on a three- to five-year basis,” Katy says. “For example, one year you could cut back one side, the next year cut back the top and the following year cut back the other side. That way, you don’t stress the plant too much and you don’t remove all the food source in one go, either.”
Comparatively, a fence can be installed and not require maintenance for several years. Eventually, though, Jane says, it will need replacing if not properly maintained, “while hedges, once established, can easily outlive most fencing”.
Both Jane and Rebecca emphasise that the hedge you choose has to be suitable for the soil type and light levels in your particular garden.
For example, if your garden is shady, Jane suggests holly (Ilex aquifolium) or yew (Taxus baccata). If your soil is wet, she recommends avoiding yew and trying alder (Alnus glutinosa) or dogwood (eg Cornus Alba) instead. If your garden is exposed and windy, she suggests hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) or Cotoneaster franchetii.
If you want a hedge for security purposes, both Rebecca and Jane recommend choosing a prickly plant such as holly, hawthorn or pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea.)
It’s also worth considering who will be using the garden. If you have young children, for example, Jane suggests checking the toxicity of hedge plants and avoiding ones such as yew.
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“Absolutely,” Katy says. “Planting a hedge is just about giving it a go. However much space you have, it’s always worth it, as you’ll be providing that little bit of shelter, food and protection for wildlife. As is the case across so many areas of conservation, we don’t need a few people doing it perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
“For a small garden, a hedge needs to consist of a plant that can be cut back hard, so it doesn’t start to encroach too much on the garden, or a plant that will not grow too quickly,” Rebecca explains.
“Some boundary hedges can be kept narrow,” Jane adds. She suggests yew or Osmanthus Burkwoodii, while others such as lavender or Euonymus ‘Jean Hugues’ are low-growing and can be used within the garden.
“Hedges are like mini ecosystems in themselves, with wonderful environmental benefits,” Jane says. “If hedges are used in place of fences, they can also provide corridors through which small animals such as hedgehogs can move from garden to garden, thus increasing their chance of finding food and a mate.”
“The wildlife benefits of a hedgerow are huge,” Katy agrees. “As well as providing valuable food and pollen and creating wildlife corridors, they offer nesting space for a wide variety of mammals and birds, from small mammals sheltering at the base to birds building nests in the middle. They also offer perching points on top for birds to watch and guard their territory.”
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“Native mixed hedging will attract so much more beneficial wildlife to your garden [than some single species], from butterflies and insects to small mammals and songbirds,” Katy says. “We usually plant 80% hawthorn or blackthorn, with the remaining 20% a mix of seven or eight other species.”
“Native hedging is a great option for supporting wildlife,” Jane says, “especially mixed native hedging, since this can provide a succession of food for birds and insects, as the different varieties produce fruit and flowers at different times of year.
“We’re starting to move away from micromanaged gardens now,” Katy adds. “A native British hedgerow is a joy and brings so much to a garden. A hedge is constantly evolving, so have fun with it and experiment. The main thing to remember is to enjoy it!”
“The best planting time is October/November or March for evergreen hedges, and anytime from late October to March for deciduous hedges,” Jane says. “I generally prefer to plant hedges in the autumn if possible, while the soil is still warm, to give plants time to settle their roots before winter. You shouldn’t plant if the ground is frozen or waterlogged.”
“Bare-root plants can only be planted over the winter months, from November until March or April, depending on the weather,” Rebecca says. “[For container-grown plants, though,] while autumn and spring are the best times to plant, it’s possible, though not ideal, to plant them anytime,” she says. “However, hedges should not be planted in the height of summer, as they can dry out too quickly and require too much watering.”
Bare-root plants are those that have been grown outdoors, then dug up in the dormant season and supplied without any soil around their roots. Root-ball plants are also grown outdoors then dug up during the dormant season, but they tend to be bigger and more mature plants.
“Bare-root and root-ball hedging is generally available from November to March (sometimes later for root-balls) and this can offer a considerable saving on container-grown plants,” Jane says.
Container-grown plants, on the other hand, have been grown in pots, so they don’t need to be lifted during the dormant months and, as such, can be planted any time of year. They also tend to be larger and more established than root-ball plants and hence more expensive. “The advantage of container-grown plants is that they’re available throughout the year,’’ Rebecca says.
You don’t need permission to plant a hedge on your own land, but you do need to make sure it won’t negatively affect your neighbour’s enjoyment of their garden by growing too tall and blocking light, views or access. Homeowners can contact their local authority if they have a problem with a hedge, but it’s advised they try to settle any issues with the homeowner in person first.
“I believe a face-to-face chat prior to instigating works can alleviate any tension,” Rebecca says, “as the neighbour will have to look at the hedge and have to either agree to maintaining their side of it or allow you access to their garden in future for maintenance.
“If the hedge is planted within the boundary (leaving room for growth) and a maintenance plan can be agreed upon between both parties prior to planting,” she adds, “the outcome should be a happy one.”
Find out more about the Hedgerow Heritage project.
Have you planted a hedge or are you planning to do so? Share your thoughts and photos in the Comments.