What Are Hedges?

When you think of hedges in a garden context, it is likely that you picture orderly rows of plants that are trimmed and trained into boundaries for gardens. But hedges do not need to be made up of a single plant species. They do not necessarily need to be neat and well-ordered rectangles of foliage.

Hedges come in many shapes and sizes, from an ordered evergreen hedge of box or privet, to wild and abundant hedgerows of native trees, shrubs and fruiting bushes. Many different trees and shrubs are ideal for creating hedges.

But to make the right hedge for where you live, and for your needs, there are a number of different things that you need to take into account. In order to make the right plant choice or choices for your hedge, you need to think first about why you want to create a hedge in the first place. You might create a hedge:

  • To simply create a boundary between your garden and the pavement or road, or a neighbours property.
  • Or to separate different areas of your garden. (To create garden rooms, for example, as part of your garden design.)
  • As a wind-break hedge, to make your garden (or part of it) more sheltered from prevailing winds.
  • For preservation of privacy.
  • To help shield an unsightly view.
  • In order to reduce air pollution or noise pollution.
  • To provide food or other useful yields for you and your family.
  • For wildlife in your garden, and to improve the biodiversity in the garden ecosystem.

Once you have narrowed in on exactly what functions your hedge should fulfil, you will need to think about which plants you could choose to make sure your specific needs are met. Of course, choosing the right trees and shrubs for your hedge can help you create one that fills many of the functions mentioned above.

Decide how tall you want your hedge to be. And how dense it needs to be. Would you be happy with a hedge that contains deciduous plants, which lose their leaves in winter. Or are you looking for evergreen options that will remain dense and foliated all year round?

You will also need to think about your overall garden design, and the overall look and feel you are going for. In a formal or contemporary garden, neater and more orderly hedges may be desired. But if you like a more rustic, natural and organic feel, then a mixed hedgerow will often be the best option for you.

Many gardeners will choose evergreen (or semi-evergreen) options for hedges – plants that retain their leaves and maintain cover over the winter. But hedges can also be wilder hedgerows, which contain both evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. And including as wide a range of different plants as possible can be a great idea for an organic, wildlife-friendly garden.

Of course, you also need to think about how quickly different plants will grow. And how long it will take for a hedge to establish. There are plenty of fast-growing trees and shrubs that will form a hedge more quickly. But fast growing plants might not always be the best options, as they can outgrow their function, and may require more maintenance over time.

It is also important not to forget that hedging plants that work well in one climate zone, microclimate and soil type will not necessarily thrive in another. When making plant choices for a hedge, it is crucial to think about which plants can cope with conditions in your area. Think about things like sunlight and shade, wind, maritime exposure, water, soil type, conditions and pH when making your hedge choices.

Popular Hedging Grown In The UK

Here are some of the common plants used as hedging in the UK:

How To Plant A Hedge

Before you get your hedge plants, you must prepare the soil and area thoroughly to make sure that your hedge gets the best start possible. Remove all weeds and any large rocks or other obstacles in the path of the intended hedge run. Dig over the soil and add a good amount of organic matter to increase the fertility of the soil and ensure its continued good health.

The best and cheapest way to establish a hedge is usually to buy whips. Whips are young, bare-root saplings/shrubs that can be purchased at a good garden centre or plant nursery or can often also be found online. These are best purchased during the dormant period, between late autumn and early spring.

Whips should usually be planted in two staggered rows, with enough space between them to ensure that the plants do not compete with one another to their detriment and yet close enough together that the plants will form a dense barrier once they are established. It is important to get the spacing right for the variety or varieties of plants that you have chosen.

When creating a windbreak hedge, think about creating a hedgerow with a triangle-shape cross-section. There should ideally be tall plants in the middle, with lower growing species on either side. Begin with the tallest centrepiece of the puzzle when planting. Then work on developing the lower tier planting to each side once that is done. Spacing will depend on the plants chosen, but typically, main structural plants will be spaced around 30-90cm apart for best results.

What Conditions Do They Prefer?

Hedge plants are so diverse that you can generally find options to suit any situation. There are plants that you can choose to create hedges in full sun, or shade. There are options for all different soil types, and pH levels. And for all climate and microclimate conditions.

There are hedge plants that will cope well in conditions with strong winds, or in exposure to pollution or maritime conditions. No matter where you live, and what conditions are like there, you will be able to make a hedge to suit you.

What Conditions Should You Avoid?

Though you can create a hedge pretty much anywhere, it is important to choose the right plants, especially if the conditions are extreme in some way.

Many hedges will not thrive in shade, but some plants will do fine. If trying to create a hedge for shade, here are some options:

  • Buxus (box)
  • Ilex (holly)
  • Prunus lauroceratus
  • lusitanica
  • Euonymous fortunei ‘Emerald Gold’

For coastal exposure, you should avoid many plants, but should consider, for example:

  • Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey cypress)
  • Elaeagnus x ebbingei
  • Hebe
  • Hippophae rhamnoides (Sea buckthorn)
  • Rosa rugosa

In colder, more exposed gardens, native hedge plants can be amongst the best options. These include:

  • Carpinus betulus (hornbeam)
  • Crataegus monogyna (hawthorn)
  • Ilex (holly)
  • Prunus spinosa (blackthorn)
  • Taxus (yew)

The key is not to avoid creating a hedge in certain conditions, but rather finding hedging plants suitable for your needs and the environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Do Hedges Take To Grow?

Hedges can vary considerably in how long they take to grow and become established. When choosing plants for a hedge the speed at which they grow, and their vigour, is a key thing to consider.

Leylandii hedges are desired and loathed for their speed of growth and vigour. This and other coniferous hedging options can be amongst the fastest growing hedge plants. But this is not always a good thing.

When planning a hedge, it is best to think about longevity rather than how long they take to grow.

While you can get reasonable cover and density much sooner, you should anticipate that a hedge will take around 3-7 years, on average, to become fully established and attain their desired density and size.

When Should You Cut Hedges?

Hedges usually need formative pruning when you plant them, and ongoing maintenance over time. But exactly how much care and pruning hedges will require very much depends on the look and feel you are going for. Of course it also depends very much on which plant or plants you have chosen.

One key factor that will help you decide when to cut hedges is whether your hedge is evergreen or deciduous, or a combination of both.

Deciduous hedges will typically require formative pruning in the winter, during the dormant period just after planting and for the next couple of years. Evergreen hedges typically need to be pruned for shade in the spring after planting, and around the same time in the next two years.

If you are going for a neater and more formal hedge, then maintenance pruning is often undertaken on both types during the summer months. How frequently and when exactly maintenance pruning should take place will depend on the particular plants.

Many evergreens are typically lightly pruned 2-3 times through the growing season. But some fast-growing types (Leyland cypress, for example) may even need more. And some, such as holly for example, are typically pruned just once, in late summer. Flowering hedge plants are typically pruned after flowering, though again, it will depend on which specific plants you are growing. In a wilder hedgerow, some plants may need little to no pruning at all.

Whenever you cut hedges, however, it is important to keep wildlife in mind. You must always delay or avoid cutting hedges where birds are nesting.

Should You Avoid Cutting At Certain Times Of Year To Avoid Nesting Birds?

As mentioned above, it is important to keep wildlife in mind when maintaining your hedges. It is illegal to damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is being built or while it is in use. It is most common to find birds nesting in hedges between March and August. So in a wildlife-friendly organic garden, you will often need to avoid cutting hedges (or keep trimming to a minimum) during this period.

In order to attract and protect birds and other wildlife in your garden, creating the right sort of hedge can be an important strategy. Creating a wilder and more informal hedge, with a diverse range of plants, including plenty of native hedging plants, is great for wildlife. Though a little maintenance pruning may be required to keep things in check, this is generally a lower maintenance option, and you will not need to worry about neatness as when you want a very manicured hedge.

In an organic garden, creating a wide, mixed hedgerow that is wildlife-friendly rather than a mono-species hedge is definitely the best strategy.

Can I Remove My Boundary Hedge?

The legalities over a boundary hedge can be complex. But typically, whether or not you can unilaterally decide to remove a hedge you do not like in the UK depends on where exactly the hedge lies with reference to legal property boundaries.

If you are aware (and 100% certain) of the legal boundaries of your property on the title deeds, and the hedge lies entirely on your side, then you do have the right to do as you wish.

If the hedge is on your neighbours’ property, overhanging into yours, you have the right to trim it back on your side, but cannot do anything to harm the health of the hedge, nor remove it entirely.

Often, a hedge will be right on the boundary, equally straddling your land and your neighbours. Where this is the case, you and your neighbours will both have rights over it. Neither you nor your neighbours can remove it without the consent of the other.

In some cases, there will be no clear boundary defined in law or outlined on title deeds for the properties. Where this is the case, it is typically assumed that a line drawn through the centre of the base of the hedge represents the boundary. So it is typically considered joint property and again, neither neighbour can remove it without the other’s consent.

How Can You Reduce The Height Of A Conifer Hedge?

Most conifers, with the exception of yew, will not respond well to drastic renovation for height reduction. So if you need to reduce the height of a conifer hedge, you will usually have to do so more slowly. Typically, where a drastic height reduction (say more than 50% reduction in height) is required, this should be done over a period of 2-3 years.

In the first year, work on restoring a good shape for the conifer hedge, reducing width if necessary, though on one side only, and making sure the hedge is thinner at the top than at the bottom to allow light to reach the bottom of the hedge effectively.

In year two, reduce width on the other side, and maintain shaping. Mulch and feed well to encourage strong regrowth.

Then, in year three, cut back to a little less than the required or desired height. Where a lot of height needs to be lost, you may wish to cut back half of the extra height in one year, and the remainder in the next.

What’s The Best Way To Dispose Of Hedge Trimmings?

Hedge trimmings can of course simply be added to your garden waste collection. But to make your gardening as eco-friendly and sustainable as possible, it can be a great idea to keep all that vegetative growth in your garden, and use it to recycle nutrients back into the garden system.

Trimmings from deciduous hedges can be shredded or chopped up small and added to a composting system. They can also be used to build up new growing area and compost in place in a no-dig garden bed or hugelkultur mound. You can also leave larger branches and woody prunings in brush piles for wildlife in a corner of your garden. Consider shredding conifer clippings to use as mulch… these are just a few examples of the ways you can use this material in your garden.

Can You Use A Chainsaw To Trim Hedges?

If you have a wilder hedgerow with lots of trees and woody shrubs, then you can use a chainsaw, carefully, and in certain circumstances, to cut through and maintain the hedgerow. But it is generally better, for most hedge trimming jobs, to use hedge trimmers or shears that will offer better precision and be more suitable for the job.

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