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Hedges for wildlife: buy British

I absolutely hate cutting the hedge – it’s about 8ft tall, on a slope and the previous owner decided to plant hawthorn facing a busy footpath (why?) but I’d never get rid of it – it’s a vital wildlife habitat, cuts down noise and pollution and can’t be  plastered with graffiti, unlike a fence.

Plant hedges when dormant: cut in May & August

Between late autumn and the end of winter is the perfect time for planting a new hedge – when the plants are dormant.

Even though it takes time (and effort) for one to reach maturity, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

I inherited a beech and hawthorn hedge. While the hawthorn does increase the biodiversity, it also grows a lot faster than beech – and it’s prickly.

As our garden faces a path, we have to keep on top of the cutting. Since it’s about eight feet high in places, this is not easy.

When to do the first cut

The first cut usually happens in May, when the old beech leaves, some of which stay on the plants during winter, get pushed off by new growth.

It’s a two-person job involving electric shears and step ladders on a slope. We now get a professional hedge cutter in for the second cut in August, when it has almost stopped growing.

This keeps it neat and tidy throughout winter and his expertise means the growth has thickened up at the base, leading to a better shape.

Restoring a badly cut hedge

Deer head beech
Crazy life-size deer head appears to crash through the beech hedge

All it takes is a busy couple of years and a hedge can get out of control. This has happened to my beech/hawthorn mix, even though I hire a professional tree surgeon to give the top and outside its last cut of the season.

However, this still leaves the inside, which has cut off light and cultivation space. It’s an old hedge, packed with dead wood, infested with coral spot.

I was determined to renovate it in January 2016. I foolishly did it by hand, bit by bit, as it’s so intertwined with other plants.

There’s no legal maximum height for a hedge, but if yours is evergreen and more than two metres tall, your neighbours could be able to claim it is affecting their right to the reasonable enjoyment of their property.

Midwinter’s the time for deciduous cutbacks

Heavy renovation can only take place in midwinter for deciduous hedges such as hornbeam, hawthorn, and beech, mid-spring for evergreens such as holly, Lonicera nitida, yew, box, and laurel.

If you want a major cutback, spread work over three years; a year for each side and one for the top because a growing season is needed for recovery – and it will look ugly.

Beech, box, hawthorn, holly, hornbeam, Lonicera nitida and yew respond well and can all be reduced by as much as 50 per cent in height and width in a single cut.

Check that there are no nesting birds, as it is an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 to damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built.

potted-guide-logoPotted guide: hedge restoration

  • WHEN: midwinter (deciduous); mid-spring (evergreen).
  • TOOLS REQUIRED: electric/petrol/eco battery hedge cutters, loppers, secateurs, pruning saw, ladders (and someone to hold them), painkillers, bandages, possible artificial limbs. If you live on a slope or the job is massive, consider hiring a professional.
  • DIFFICULTY: Easy to impossible, depending on how overgrown the hedge is, and how decrepit you are.

Deciduous hedge restoration: 3-year guide

  • Year 1: Cut back the width on one side to at least 15cm (6in) less than desired. Make sure the side tapers from a thinner top to bottom. Trim the other side of the hedge as usual and leave the height unaltered. Mulch and feed in spring, water well in dry spells.
  • Year 2: Cut back the other side, but leave the height the same. Mulch, feed, and water as before.
  • Year 3: Cut the height to at least 15cm (6in) below the level you want, harder where growth is patchy. Mulch, feed, and water as before.

Renovating evergreen hedges

Yew hedges RHS Harlow Carr
Asymmetric yew hedges form a feature of their own at RHS Harlow Carr
  • Cut evergreen hedges in mid-spring, as they respond better in active growth.
  • Most conifers (apart from yew) do not respond well to renovation, as they do not re-shoot from old wood – they need regular light trimming.
  • If your Cupressus, Chamaecyparis or × Cuprocyparis leylandii (Leyland cypress) hedge has become too big, here’s what you can do:
  • Reduce the height by up to one-third in April by thinning outside branches right back to the trunk. Mulch and feed to encourage vigorous re-growth.
  • Beware: hedges reduced in height by more than a third may stay flat and bare at the top.
  • Where bare patches have developed in conifer hedges, try to tie in a new branch to cover it.

Top tips for planting a perfect hedge

Pyracantha hedge
Pyracantha being trained into a ‘bald spot’ in the hedge for autumn/winter interest
  • Deciduous plants can be planted from mid-autumn to late winter; evergreens in early autumn, but you can get away with the same time as long as plants are dormant.
  • Avoid privet and Leylandii – they are rampant growers and will impoverish your soil.
  • Cheapest to buy are bare-root plants. Some evergreens come root-wrapped, where the rootball is held together with soil in a fabric case – remove before planting.
  • Easiest to establish are whips, about 60cm high, planted closely so form a thick hedge.
  • Delay planting until the soil is workable – do not plant if frozen or waterlogged.
  • If conditions are unsuitable, keep plants in a frost-free place. Cover their roots with moist potting compost and plastic sheeting.
  • To plant, dig over a strip 60-90cm wide and one spade blade deep. Remove weeds. Add garden compost, mixing it into top 25cm.
  • Plant 30-60cm apart. For hedges thicker than 90cm, plant a staggered double row 45cm apart, with plants 90cm apart.
  • Spread out the roots and plant up to the previous soil mark on the stem. Firm plants and water. Mulch to a depth of 7.5cm.
  • Aftercare: ensure plants are well-watered for the next two years. Top-dress in spring with Growmore at 70g per sqm.