Following my nose

A fragrant day today, ending with perhaps the most olfactorily pleasing compost heap I’ve encountered for some time, piled high with cuttings of lavender and spearmint (Mentha spicata) – quite invigorating, as was the thunderstorm that arrived just as I was finishing up. But the day began twenty foot up a ladder, nose pressed into the foliage of a tall hedge of leyland cypress, deeply inhaling the luxuriant scent of the resin which I will shortly need to go and clean from the blades of my tools. Another smell from childhood, this time one I’ve always loved, ever since my old Da planted a leylandii hedge in the front garden of our north London terrace house. My parents moved from that house a decade ago, but thirty years on that hedge is looking better than ever, which just goes to show. Leylandii has a rotten reputation, but it makes a stormingly good hedge – you just need to remember to cut it, preferably twice a year. And that’s all you have to do – I’m not sure what the fuss is about to be honest. True, many neighbourly disputes have arisen over unruly hedges grown enormous (the leyland cypress, Cupressus x leylandii can grow to over 20 metres tall if left untrimmed), but they just need a little care. A hedge is not a fence, you don’t erect it and then ignore it completely. It is collection of trees, living entities, and as such requires some care. Not a lot – just a spot of periodic trimming. Your toenails would grow pretty out of control if you left neglected to clip them for five years.

‘Oh, but leylandii’s so commonplace’, my lecturer would boom across the labs when doing plant idents. ‘If you must have a coniferous hedge, choose something else. Why not...Thuja?’ Why not indeed? Thuja plicata (Western Red Cedar if you’re buying a greenhouse or a wardrobe made of the stuff) is another cracking plant, also well suited to hedging. Except it’s twice as expensive, establishes less quickly, and from across the garden I’m not sure you’d really notice the difference in something that’s essentially going to be used as a backdrop. Its crushed foliage smells of pear drops, which may or may not be an advantage over leylandii, according to your taste. But then few people buy this kind of hedge for the purpose of sniffing it.*

All this being said, I don’t have a leylandii hedge in my own garden – we planted a strip of mixed native hedging, and use a block of yew (also native) to partition the garden (not that everything in the garden has to be native – it isn’t – I just liked the idea of tying the garden to the surrounding countryside). Which is all very well, and we’re quite pleased with how things are working, hedge-wise. It just doesn’t smell as good.

*If you are into hedge sniffing, then may I recommend Escallonia? Clip this and you’ll be engulfed in a cloud of spiced orange fumes. Just add red wine, and heat gently. Only put the hedge clippers away first.

Hedging your bets

There are several wise things said concerning he who plants a tree. (Never, you’ll notice, ‘she’ who plants a tree. One can only assume that ‘she’ is off mowing the lawn, weeding the borders, digging the potatoes and pruning the wisteria while ‘he’ has spent the last three hours just digging a big hole, sticking a tree in it and standing back to admire his handy work.) All things considered – excepting the suspect gender bias – the sayings are justified, for a tree is about as wonderful and awe-inspiring a thing as you can get, and to plant one is an act of generosity and hope for the future. But I have to confess to feeling slightly put out that posterity doesn’t seem to have bothered itself with preserving any choice epithets on the subject of they who plant hedges. Because, when all is said and done, what is a hedge apart from rather a lot of trees planted closely together? Of course, an individual plant within a hedge will never grow to the same stature as one of the same species grown as a standard tree – you’d never be able to sit in its shade, build a treehouse in its canopy or hang a swing from its limbs – but that's not the point. A hedge is a living illustration of the thing which is greater than the sum of its parts – it has to be more than a lineup of stunted trees, which sounds horrid, or we wouldn’t bother with the hedge at all.

For centuries hedges have been planted to declare boundaries, control livestock and to mark rights of way, providing wood for fuel, shelter for animals and birds that scurry among their roots or nest in their branches, as well as food for the forager, whether animal or human in form. Their history is inextricably bound to the narrative of our rural past and now, through our gardens, they also have the potential to form a green web that criss-crosses mile upon mile of our urban and suburban landscape, providing the potential for wildlife corridors across entire towns and cities.

But beyond the history and the environmental credentials, what exactly is it about hedges that I like so much? That begs me to defend them over and above all other forms of garden enclosure or boundary material, and plant them wherever I can? Perhaps its the sheer variety available. There are deciduous hedges and evergreen hedges, or mixtures of both, hedges with blossom and hedges with berries, spiky, spiney hedges for security and soft, billowing cloud-pruned hedges for fun. Tight, clipped formal hedges and blousy unruly country hedges which, whether plashed by skillful craftsmen or brutishly mangled with a mechanical flail, never seem to mind and continue growing just as robustly all the same.

Contrasted with the uniformity of a fence there is so much more to delight the eye. Even when the hedge in question consists of multiples of one species, there’s a pleasing variety in tone that makes an experience out of simply gazing along its flank. But why plant just one species, when a hedge can consist of a glorious patchwork of different colours, leaf shapes and textures? While fast-growing hawthorn forms the backbone of many hedgerows, this is often augmented with complementary blackthorn and dog rose, beech and hornbeam, wayfaring tree and spindle to name only a handful. These are readily available online from hedging nurseries within their ‘native hegding’ mixes from as little as a pound per metre. Slightly more formal piebald effects can be achieved with a mixture of evergreen yew and deciduous hornbeam, creating a fresh contrast between the deep green of the yew and the vivid, almost lime-colours of the young hornbeam leaves in spring, turning copper orange to brown over winter.

Hedging costs vary depending on the species chosen and the initial size of the plants, but can be comparable and often cheaper than erecting a fence of cheap panels, and significantly less expensive than a well-constructed closeboard fence. But while the cost of ongoing maintenance needs to be factored in when planning for a fence – which will need periodic weather-proofing to delay the inevitable damage from rot and strong winds – this also needs to be considered with a hedge. At the moment it’s not uncommon to see a hedge in dire need of a short-back-and-sides, although more often than not this will consist of vigorously growing species such as the infamous Leyland cypress. Regular trimming, twice a year, is key to maintaining this kind of hedge. Far better to chose something which exists at a more sedate pace in the first place – the western red cedar Thuja plicata looks nicer, smells better, and grows more slowly than the leylandii which it superficially resembles. Planting a broadleaved hedge, whether deciduous (such as beech) or evergreen (holly or privet) allows greater margin for error when trimming, without the danger of creating unsightly brown patches should you cut back too far beyond the growing points (yew is the only conifer suitable for hedging which can successfully reshoot from old wood).

So given the choice, would I chose a fence or a hedge? Something that’s fit for purpose, good for the soul, and affordable too? I’d opt for the hedge every time.