Why would you want to have a hedge in your garden? There are many reasons to have a hedge. Hedges don’t tend to blow over in the wind. They do not need painting or preserving with chemicals. They slow the wind down acting like a windbreak to protect precious plants in the garden, without causing turbulent eddies like solid walls or fences do. They look more natural and if flowering plants are used can be very attractive. They are fantastic for wildlife that use them for food and shelter. Thorny species help keep out unwanted visitors. If managed properly they will last indefinitely. On top of all that they can even be an outstanding source of food. So for me the question should be; why not have a hedge?
There are many types of hedge you could have in your garden but I am going to focus on a mixed species hedge, similar to what you would find on the edges of a field. These hedges consist mainly of our native plant species such as hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel. However, in the garden we can be a little more creative than this. By selecting the plants we use it is possible to create a hedge that suits our particular needs and one that can be almost like a vertical allotment, full of fruits and nuts to harvest all year round.
Where to begin? Imagine a garden that backs down onto a farmer’s field. Dividing the garden from the field is a typical hedge full of hawthorn, brambles snaking their way through the branches then leaping from the foliage laden with plump black berries and radiant red rose hips adding richness to the fading autumnal colours. This is the hedge I have been asked to re-design by a current client. After considering all the possibilities including an evergreen holly hedge or a semi-deciduous birch hedge, we finally decided on an edible hedge. There were already fruit trees at the bottom of the garden and they enjoyed harvesting the blackberries with their two small children to go with the apples. They also wanted to have the security that came with the dense thorny hedge. They just wanted to tidy it up and make it more pleasing to the eye.
The first thing to decide was which species to use. There are many plants that would be brilliant in a hedge such as this. The key thing is to have species that are going to be able to compete well with the other plants in the hedge so that they would be productive. Once you know the plants you may like to use you can then consider the season of production. This will allow you to create a food source for the whole year round. As security is an issue for this hedge, the next step would be to make sure that some of the plants chosen have thorns. These plants will help deter anyone from trying to squeeze their way through the hedge into the garden.
So, what plants could be used? Before I discuss the edible plants I want to begin with the overall hedge dynamics. As there is a lot of space for the hedge in question, I will be creating a hedge of three rows of plants. The row that lines the farmer’s field will contain the plants that are already there, with a few additions to plug in any gaps. I will first reduce the height and remove much of the side branches to allow me to lay the outer hedge, using stakes I will make from the pruned material. Layering is an ancient technique; something my grandad used to do on the farm. You cut the trunk of the trees in the hedge at the base at an angle down to the ground. With skill, you can cut just over half way through so that the tree can then be bent over without severing it totally from the root system. The bent over trees are then tied to stakes to hold them down. They recover from this savage attack and the many side branches grow upwards to create a very dense tightly woven hedge.
Some of the plants on the inner hedge will be removed and as much of the brambles as possible will also be dug out to make way for more productive varieties. Now we can discuss the new plants that can be added to create an incredible edible hedge. As I mentioned, there are many plants that can be used, so it will come down to taste and preference. Below is a list of my suggestions for the main hedge, but there are many more that could also be used.
• Rosa spp. – Roses are wonderful plants that I have discussed in a previous blog in more detail. The dog rose grows wild in hedgerows all over the country. Rosa rugosa is also a very good plant for a hedge, but there are many cultivated varieties that would also be very useful in an edible hedgerow. The flowers petals and hips are both edible. Rose bud tea is very refreshing in summer and the rose hips contain more vitamin C than oranges.
• Elaeagnus umbellate ‘Sweet ‘n’ Tart’ – A very useful shrubby tree that has an attractive silvery foliage and produces very tasty bright red berries, if they are left to ripen fully so as not to be too tart!
• Amelanchier lamarckii – Once my plant of the week! An amazing small suckering tree that can be pruned hard to keep its form. Lovely little white flowers in spring produce berries in June, hence the common name of Juneberry. In the autumn the foliage is on fire with orange and red leaves.
• Gooseberry Varieties – There are many varieties that can be used. Look for ones that are less susceptible to mildew and try and extend the season using plants that produce fruits at different times. They are also very thorny plants so good as a deterrent. Some good varieties are ‘Careless’, ‘Greenfnch’ and ‘Invicta’.
• Ribes x culverwellii (Jostaberry) – A gooseberry and blackcurrant hybrid which is thornless and disease resistant. It produces a glut of large deep purple fruits with a unique flavour.
• Ribes divaricatum – A wild gooseberry from across the pond. Very thick thorns and delicious shiny black gooseberry fruits.
• Ribes rubrum (Red Currant) – A woodland fruiting shrub that will tolerate shade. The white currant is the same plant but in a different form.
• Rubus fruticosus ‘Fantasia’ (Blackberry) – A vigorous variety similar to what is found in many hedges across the country (there are around 700 different species of blackberry in the UK!).
• Rubus hybrids – Loganberry, boysenberry and tayberry all produce larger and longer fruits that the blackberry. Again the season can be extended by selecting different varieties. Thorny varieties will also give added security although thornless ones make for easier picking.
• Zanthoxylum simulans (Szechwan Pepper) – Another spiny shrub. This one produces hundreds of pepper corns that can be used for cooking.
• Chaenomeles spp. (Oriental Quince) – The smaller oriental quince is just as flavoursome and looks fantastic too.
• Corylus avellana (hazel) – A very useful tree used in coppicing. Canes or rods can be harvested for using in the garden and if you can get to the nuts before the squirrels they are very tasty too!
• Acca sellowiana (pineapple guava) – This will give a bit of glamour to the warmer sunnier gardens. The flowers are flamboyantly pink and deliciously sweet. If they develop into fruits they are like small avocados but taste more like pineapple.
The middle row of the hedge I will be adding some small trees. These will be allowed to grow out from the hedge and provide an added layer of wind protection as well as food production. The following trees are my favourites to be used in this way. Again, there are many more options.
• Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace‘ (Black Elder) – A dramatic black feather leaved variety of elder.
• Sambucus racemose (Red Elder) – A more typical elder. ‘Plumosa Aurea’ and ‘Sutherland Gold’ are particularly good.
• Sambucus Canadensis (American Elder) – If you like elderflower cordial then this is the one for you. By using one clone you can be sure to have elderflower all the way into October or even November in some parts of the country.
• Malus sylvestris (crab apple) – I particularly like the deep red varieties but there are many to choose from. The more Malus varieties you can have in the garden the better your crop of apples will be as they all assist with pollination. These apples can be used to make jelly, or you can leave them for the blackbirds and thrushes.
This is just a taste of what you could do with a garden hedge if you allow your imagination to run wild. If you have the space I would thoroughly recommend having a go yourself or, if you are local, contact us for a free consultation. The possibilities are endless and the rewards taste great!