Hedging our bets!

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
October 2022

Steffie Shields discusses investment in hedges.

A stable economy, and the ability to keep making money, are essential to a healthy and prosperous society. As in hedge-laying, using supportive pointed pieces of wood driven into the ground, we all have a share in the stakes. It seems somewhat surreal that office-bound accountants and financiers have appropriated the term ‘hedge fund’ as a method to manage or spread their assets against inflation, a way to safeguard property and mitigate risk of losing all their wealth. Nowadays, although the line drawn between what is mine and what is yours is common to both subjects, the topic of hedge funds is probably discussed more often than the living boundaries we make for our properties.

‘Hedge’ is an Old English word first recorded in the 8th century, when rampaging Vikings invaded the northern shores. Hedges proved useful for marking land ownership and offered a sense of security while holding in livestock. Imagine the secret, enclosed garden bowers created for the ladies of the household from the 12th century, when they began to use the word ‘privet’, though this did not refer to the deciduous Eurasian shrub of the olive family, Ligustrum vulgare, commonly known as privet, introduced much later.

When the 1941 Government compulsorily requisitioned all post-1850 iron gates and railings in Britain for the war effort, to be melted down for making WWII armaments, privet became popular as a replacement for ornamental railings around properties. It has been widely used for hedges, as its semi-evergreen leaves cope well with clipping. The rather noxious scent from its small, white flowers always triggers memories of uninspiring post-war gardens in London. I was not dismayed when, following a particularly harsh winter soon after moving in, a golden privet planted by the previous owners gave up the ghost. It seemed too urban in our rural garden.

What can be more countrified than traditional hawthorn, an ancient symbol of hope, Crataegus monogyna, bringing creamy-white clouds of spring blossom and fruiting shiny dark red berries in autumn. Several more ornamental hybrids are now available. I prefer a varied, flowering boundary, adding dog rose, cotoneaster and hazel.

Have you noticed how, besides the frazzled grass and border perennials, most shrubs and indeed all the hedges have weathered this summer’s heat wave? Those sweltering temperatures reminded us that water is our most valuable resource. More careful in choosing what and when, and how often, to water, I often carried out a bucket of washing-up water to drench the roots of my most vulnerable plants. Both water-loving hydrangeas, and a Viburnum ‘Mariesii’, tend to be the first to droop, as if on last legs. Hedges are critical in times of drought. When open ground gets too hard to absorb water, as happened this summer, hedges prevent run-off and flooding.

Beech hedging serves well as a half-circle backdrop for a bench or arbour, or as a screen for a shed or work area. Tough, common English laurel, or cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, and equally vigorous Portugual laurel, Prunus lusitanica, introduced in 1742, provide a distinctive, year-round under-storey. They enliven shady, sinuous walks as their shiny leaves reflect the light. Best pruned by hand with secateurs than with an electric clipper.

Whether tightly clipped, or left to grow more naturally, hedges are structural ‘bones’ adding a uniform rhythm through the garden, and set the tone of the garden particularly in winter. If space is an issue, evergreen yew and cypress are often the go-to hedging when contemporary designers tackle smaller town gardens. Like most hedges, they can be kept trim with regular clipping once or twice a year after young birds have flown their nests offering a sense of calm. I noticed in a photo of designer Bunny Guinness’s home, she had surrounded a garden seating and patio area with a tidy tribe of sculptured box hedges, great and small.

Gardening is a fresh air blend of art and science. The garden at Guanock House in South Holland, originally designed by and for ten years the former home of Chelsea designer Arne Maynard, offers a lesson in geometry. Different hedges operate in multiple ways, for privacy, shelter and ornament in the wide, windswept fens: low square boxes and rectangles of copper beech, or yew and box creating high, verdant walls or garden rooms. The incredible versatility of hedges is demonstrated to great effect, including how to ‘mind the gaps’! A narrow breach in a hedge draws the eye to explore a vista beyond, a wider aperture creates a threshold or gateway to another garden space.

Choice of line derives from care and thought, whether rigidly linear or softer and varied in undulation and curve. If you should inherit or move to a garden with one of those ubiquitous, well-established leylandii hedges dominating the space, think carefully about its height and shape of its ends. Aim to keep it as well-trimmed as possible. Then, choose to plant one or two ornamental trees in front, such as a catalpa with contrasting form, large, smooth leaves and open habit which will successfully take the eye, and the limelight, whatever the season.

Traditional hedge laying is a time-consuming activity best carried out in late winter when most berries have been eaten, and well before the nesting season. Cut through the stems low down, then bend them sideways, to be held in place by stakes. Keep on filling any gaps unless you have a particular ‘peep’ or vista that you wish to enjoy. Such structured bones of the garden are relatively quick to establish, are less man-made than a fence or wall, and offer a huge benefit to a wide variety of creatures, insects and birdlife, providing blossom for pollination, berries for food, a ‘woodland edge habitat’. Do you realise that linear hedges are features that guide bats from roosts to their feeding areas?

Rather alarming talk of ‘rewilding’ lately seems much in vogue in the media, to the extent that Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt reimagined an ancient countryside with their ‘A Rewilding Britain Landscape’ garden, which won Best in Show at RHS Chelsea this year. Nature will always need taming. I recommend keeping a steady hand on the tiller. Countryside conservation will prosper if hedges are neither savagely trimmed nor neglected and best managed with sensitive clipping.

Besides, in ‘harvesting hedges’, you may be rewarded with biofuel. Hedges may yet prove to be more valuable than we realise!

Now’s a good time to think about your hedges! Gardeners will, I hope, continue to both tend their hedges to ‘hedge their bets’ against climate change. Besides replacing the odd tree lost in the drought, turn your thoughts to planting a couple of hedges or refresh an existing hedge with one or two different species – flowering forsythia, Kerria Japonica or Philadelphus, or an eye-catching spindle. Once your hedge is established, you will not have to water it again. You will rejoice in money well-spent, bringing shelter, greater sense of place and an investment in well-being for the garden, your family and wildlife friends!

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