When we moved into our current house in 1980, we were pleased to see the garden was bordered on three sides with hedges. Two were hawthorn and the bottom was laurel. Laurel is a difficult shrub to manage because it grows so quickly and is poisonous if ingested. Thankfully my children weren’t interested in eating the leaves, but the fumes given off from burning prunings have given Chris headaches so we know to be careful.
Our neighbours living in the adjoining house have been happy to work with us to keep the mutual hedge in good order. They trim it and have put extra wiring against the bottom to prevent their Jack Russell from escaping into our garden. Our other neighbours are both frail and elderly and for the last ten years kept asking us to remove the hedge so they could replace it with a maintenance free wooden fence.
I always refused, so one year they went ahead and put up a fence on their side of the boundary any way. We happily let them through to complete the erection, but when I returned home from work that day, I found they had dug up my entire valerian bed. It wasn’t intentional malice. They had asked me if there was anything I wanted to keep and had carefully replaced those plants I mentioned. I just hadn’t realised how far along the border they would need to rip up. I remember sitting on the garden bench and sobbing my heart out wondering what I had done to deserve such destruction!
Happily the valerian re-appeared, but in greatly reduced numbers. Last year I only found two plants, but today I counted six and there are many at the farm if I want more.
The hedge is still growing strong, but its age has taken a toll. Several of the original trees have died off, so I have filled in the gaps with other species. They say you can tell the age of a hedge by the number of species in any given length. If you select a 30 metre length and count the number of tree species three times to give an average, you can multiply that number by one hundred to discover the age.
I know my hawthorn hedge was planted in 1957 when the house was built so has been in place just over half a century. The original owners planted hawthorn with various shrubs along its length. The lilac and forsythia have been decimated since we took over the garden. Other trees which have established themselves are sycamore and holly, together with the ubiquitous bramble and ivy –all of which produce flowers for bees and fruits for birds.
My contributions have been cherry plum, rowan and a tiny elder sapling which grew from a dropped seed two years ago. It is so tiny, you would never know it is there, but I am hoping it will grow and mature as the years pass. Cherry plum is a historic hedging material which has fallen from use. I found it in a catalogue when
I was looking for spindle trees and decided to give it a go. The green foliage is beautiful and I’m hoping that soon it might decide to flower and provide small plums we can harvest. It is a relative of the blackthorn but doesn’t have any sharp thorns!
The rowan tree was a mistake. I brought back what I thought was a cherry plum when I was planting out thirty five saplings at the farm ( a mixture of alder, red alder, silver birch, wild cherry and apple). I love rowan trees so was pleased I now have its protective properties in my garden boundary.
I also have a self-seeded yew tree next to the ancient cooking apple tree. It seemed appropriate for it to be in the garden given the amount of work I do with grief and dying. I’m watching to see if it adversely affects any of the other plants around it, but at the moment it is a quiet member of the hedge next to my summer house where I keep it well pruned.
A hedge provides more than just a secure boundary. It is home to robins, blue tits, sparrows and blackbirds. It protects them from marauding magpies, jays, pigeons and rooks. Two of the hawthorns have been allowed to grow into mature trees and these are now harvested for their leaves, flowers and berries in due season.
One of the things I missed most when I moved from the Cotswolds to Birmingham was my hedgerows. I would search for ancient field boundaries along the outer circle roads and feel happy when I was successful. I really enjoy having my own hedges in a suburban environment and watching them flourish.