The season to plant your hedges

Ideas to help you plant a hedge

Garden advice by Debbie Lockey Garden Design 

Advice on choosing and planting your hedge

My dividing boundary hedge, consisting of escallonia, is in a bad way. For the last few years black spots have appeared on its leaves, the result of a fungus that thrived during the wet summers we had several years ago. Eventually the leaves dropped off and we are now left with twigs for a hedge, rather than the lovely green boundary we use to have.

I tried tidying away the leaves from the base of the plants, fed and watered it, took out the dead branches and pruned it in the hope that this would help to revive it. But nothing has worked so I am now thinking of replacing that section of the hedge. Fortunately this fungus is specific to escallonia so I can replace the old hedge with a different hedging plant, which will not succumb to the fungus. But which plant shall I choose from the vast array available to create a hedge?

Choosing plants for a new hedge

As a designer I initially consider the purpose of the plant, as this helps me narrow down my choice. For my hedge I want a plant that will grow tall and thick enough to provide a boundary line, as well as some privacy from and for my neighbour, and her dog (who I hasten to add is adorable, so we may have to fight over him if he does get into the garden). I don’t mind if it has flowers, but that is not high on my list of priorities. Similarly I don’t mind if it is evergreen or deciduous, as it will not be screening any houses.

Leylandii hedging was very popular for a long time as these plants, being evergreen provided screening all year round, plus they are fast growing so a boundary could be established very quickly compared to say holly. But as we all now know they can be a menace in any garden precisely because they are so fast growing, the result being solid high hedges that overshadowed gardens. So they are definitely off my list. Also I associate leylandii with a more suburban garden, rather than a garden in the New Forest.

Native hedges

garden hedgesNormally I would choose a native hedge. They are great for all kinds of wildlife, plus they provide all round interest with flowers, foliage, berries and seeds. This kind of hedge can consist of a mixture of trees such as hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), beech (Fagus sylvatica) and alder (Alnus glutinosa), and shrubs, for example guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), holly (Ilex aquifolium), hazel (Corylus avellana) and elder (Sambucus nigra). If you wanted to have some fun you could choose plants that can give you alcohol, for example the sloe (Prunus spinosa), elder, and cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera). The latter has a fruit that can be used to make liqueur or wine. Once these plants are established, and are about 4 foot high, blackberries can be added to the hedge, to give you blackberry wine.

If such a hedge appeals to you, rather than an evergreen hedge that you plant up in autumn, this is the time of year - early winter to early spring when the plants are dormant - to create your hedge using whips. These are bare rooted saplings about 1 year old, which can be bought off the internet or at your garden centre, either as a single plant or as a bundle. Because they are native to this country they quickly become established to form a dense barrier that will tolerate pruning.

Native hedging has a lovely informal feel which is ideal for the New Forest. But although they can be pruned, they will never provide that formal green wall one can expect if leylandii, privet or escallonia were used. And it is for this reason that I won’t be choosing native hedging for my garden.

Hedges for narrow gardens

I have a typical Victorian garden, long and thin, where space is a premium so I want to be able to cut the hedge back hard and create a green wall. In addition it needs to fit in with the rest of my hedge, which is already a combination of evergreen conifers, privet and more escallonia which hasn’t been affected by the fungus. This is enough variety for me so I don’t want to be adding to it by using various native trees. Also I want the hedge to act as a quiet backdrop to the herbaceous plants and shrubs in the garden rather than providing interest in its own right. I have therefore decided to go for a half way measure and have either a beech or hornbeam hedge.

The season to plant your hedge by Debbie Lockey Garden DesignI prefer beech as I love the orange / brown colour of the leaves in winter. If your proposed hedge is going to be in part shade choose Fagus sylvatica. For a sunnier site you may be better off with the purple leaved beech Fagus sylavitica Atropurpurea Group as they are happier in this position. Plus the sun shining through their leaves makes them glow like   jewels, which is an added bonus.

But hornbeam can cope better than beech with water logged, heavy clay soils. It is also more tolerant than beech of shade, and exposed or frosty sites. But don’t plant hornbeam in coastal sites in Lymington as they can’t cope with the salt in the air.

To me though, although hornbeam, like beech, holds its leaves over winter, I feel the leaves on the hornbeam are duller brown / grey colour compared to the bright orange / brown colour of beech leaves, that I love. Nor does the hornbeam hold as many leaves as the beech so you don’t get that lovely rustling sound associated with the wind blowing through the leaves of a beech hedge. So I am going to risk planting beech. I will just make sure I prepare the soil well.

Tips on planting a new hedge

Firstly I intend to dig over the soil where the present hedge is. I won’t take out all the infected escallonia as it will act as a support to the whips, but if you are starting from scratch, dig over a strip 60 – 90cm wide, (2-3 ft). As I am slightly worried about drainage in my garden I am going to create a ridge of soil about 15-20cm high (6-8inches), and 50-70cm (20-28 inches) across using soil and garden compost. If you don’t have any compost you can buy a special tree and shrub proprietary mix to add to the soil. Fork this into the top 25cm (10inches) of the soil. At the same time remove any weeds so they are not competing with the whips for nutrients and sunlight.

I don’t want my hedge too high or wide so I’ll plant my whips about 45cm apart, in a straight line. If you want a thicker, taller hedge you may want to stagger the planting in two rows 45cm apart, with the whips 30 cm apart.

Spread the root system of the whips out, trimming out any damaged or dead roots, then plant them deep enough to match their previous planting depth. There will be an obvious soil mark on the whip showing this depth. Ensure you firm the soil in around the roots by gently pressing the soil down with your foot. This will ensure the soil is against the roots rather than air pockets. Water the plants in if it is dry and then apply a mulch to a depth of 7 cm, 3inches, to stop the weeds getting established. In the spring apply a general slow releasing fertilizer, such as Growmore or blood fish and bone, and ensure you keep watering them for the first two years until their roots get established.

Any pruning in the first two years should be done in August and it is just to remove the long straggly shoots and the tips of any side shoots to encourage the hedge to grow evenly throughout. By the third year you should be able to prune the hedge normally. And by 7 years you should have an established hedge. Well worth the wait.


Good luck!

For more gardening information and advice, contact Debby Lockey Garden Design.


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