The first broods of birds have now fledged and the hedges are starting to reach into the borders at full speed. Before long the continuous cycle of hedge trimming will become a fundamental part of my daily labour.
The endless miles of privet hedging that cris-cross the suburbs are ‘bread and butter’ for gardeners. The whirring of hedge trimmers can be heard daily as hoards of gardeners start to try and tame the hedges. The ideal of a suburban plot, enclosed on all four sides by a bushy hedge seems to be much less popular. Maintenance-wary owners now tend to replace them with fences. Hedges do need regular maintenance, but they will provide shelter for plants, homes for wildlife and border patrol duties, long after a fence has rotten to dust.
The word hedge comes from the Dutch ‘Haag” meaning enclosure. The first hedges were planted in Neolithic times (4000-6000 years ago) to enclose crops, providing shelter from wind and rain, and protection from animals. Many hedges were established during the medieval period to distinguish the rights of way from the fields. Between 1604 and 1914 6.8 million acres of common grazing land were enclosed by landowners for agricultural improvement, protected by endless miles of hedges. Dr Max Harper’s 1974 book ‘Hedges’ contains a formula to ascertain the age of a hedge. He suggests that it is roughly equal to the number of species that can be found in a 30m stretch, multiplied by 110 years, although this is a very rough approximation.
The primary constituent in most British hedgerows is Hawthorn. This hardy shrub is tough and spiky making it made an ideal barrier for livestock. In domestic situations many shrubby species can be used such as Box, Beech, Holly, Privet, Laurel, Yew, Thuja, Escallonia. Species such as Blackthorn, Roses and Brambles also have the added bonus of providing tasty fruit in the autumn.
Hedges are a fundamental element in the landscape. They not only restrict the movement of livestock, but will also prevent soil erosion and reduce noise pollution. They provide shelter from the wind, rain and sun for crops and gardeners, and are even great as a screen, or provide privacy, by blocking views both in and out of the garden. They have long heritage in gardens forming grand avenues, intricately woven parterres or disorientating mazes.
Hedge Trimming is an exhausting and time-consuming chore, but an essential part of hedge maintenance. Without regular trimming they quickly lose their shape and density and gaps will start to appear. In agricultural situations hedges are often ‘laid’. This is done by cutting most of the way through an upright stem which is then bent over and woven horizontally along the line of the hedge between upright stakes. This process stimulates vigorous growth at the base of the hedge ensuring it stays stock-proof.
The quick-growing leylandii hedges, widely planted in the 70’s and 80’s initially provided dense cover, but if left unchecked, get quickly out of hand. In 2003 legislation on ‘high hedges’ was included in the Anti Social Behaviour Act. Hedges were deemed to be antisocial if they started to affect the light, access or reasonable enjoyment of the neighbours property, and could be subject to a removal order.
It is unfortunate that in the history of hedges they have all too often signified division and separation. In ecological terms, hedges provides a way of joining spaces. They provide wildlife with valuable corridors of cover down which they can safely travel, forming green bridges and linking isolated habitats. If only they could do the same for us and unify neighbourhoods rather than dividing them.