Planting your hedge
Planting a new hedge can be hugely rewarding – aesthetically pleasing, functional (puts something between you and the neighbours) and very wildlife-friendly. It’s also surprisingly easy, as long as you follow a few simple guidelines.
The key to establishing a new hedge is the removal of all competing vegetation. You can do this organically (which requires a bit of hard work) or inorganically.
The organic solution
The non-chemical method is to physically remove whatever plants are currently growing on the hedge site. Assuming this is grass, you’ll need to strip the turf—with a spade if you’re feeling strong, and the hedge isn’t going to be too long, or hire a turf stripper. We’d recommend hiring a stripper; they’re very efficient, easy to use, and will strip a huge amount in a day.
Whichever method you choose, you’ll end up with a lot of turf to dispose of—you can stack it to make loam, dump it on the compost heap, or take it to the tip. Whatever you choose it’ll be hard work because it’s heavy stuff, and that’s why we’d recommend the inorganic method.
The chemical solution
Even the most committed of organic gardeners will concede that glyphosate is a pretty benign chemical, and the method we’d recommend for clearing your hedge site is to spray with a glyphosate-based herbicide (the most commonly seen brand is Roundup, but there are several others on the market – read the small print on the label to check the active ingredient). Simply mix according to the instructions on the pack, and spray away.
A few tips
- Spray only where you want to kill stuff—glyphosate will kill anything green it touches, and the tiniest amount will do, so be careful! Do not even think about spraying if there is any sort of wind.
- Glyphosate needs at least 6 hours, ideally 24 hours of dry weather to be absorbed by the plant (rain will simply wash it off!).
- A very fine mist will do the job. Don’t be tempted to soak the plants – this tends to cause run-off, and you’ll end up with less chemical on the leaves!
- Ignore the stuff on the label about spraying between March and September—glyphosate will work as long as there are green leaves to absorb it. We’ve sprayed very successfully in the depths of winter.
- Glyphosate takes several weeks to work, so spray well ahead of your planned planting date (at least a month).
- Once the weeds/grass are dead, its important to remove the thatch of dead material—strim, mow or rake the site clear down to soil level. This will make planting easier, and removes what would otherwise be a very attractive habitat for hedge munching mice, voles and shrews!
- Whichever method of weed removal you choose, be generous with the space you allow—a metre-wide strip is usually about right.
Getting the plants in the ground is surprisingly easy, and quick.
Whack a spade vertically into the soil to a depth of about 6–9″, and waggle it about to make a slit which is about an inch wide at the top. Remove the spade, and wiggle the hedge plants’ roots into the slit. Put the plant in as deeply as it was on the nursery—match the soil mark on the plant to the surface of the soil into which you’re planting. Use your foot to close the slit around the plants’ roots.
Job done! Repeat as necessary to complete the rest of the planting.
This assumes you are planting small bare root plants – up to say 90 – 120 cms size. Larger plants will have larger root systems, which will need to be planted into holes rather than slits.
If there are fine or weak looking roots on the plants, use secateurs to tidy them up before planting – expect to remove as much as a third of the roots during this process. They will have been damaged during lifting, and would suffer more during planting, so they’re best removed. They’d just rot in the ground if left.
Prune the top growth down to a strong looking bud, to encourage good bushy growth. Expect to remove as much as a third of the height. Sounds severe, but it’ll be worth it in the end.
That’s it. Do not be tempted to pre-dig or “improve” the soil. Do not add any fertiliser, and only water if the weather is hot and dry for a prolonged period. If you do need to water, a weekly soaking is better than a daily dribble.
The motto is grow ’em hard, so they are motivated to root strongly in search of food and water.
During the second winter, you may want to spray off competing vegetation once again—it’s very important to keep the site weed free. You can use glyphosate again, but be careful—do it in winter when the hedging plants are dormant so they have no leaves to absorb the chemical, and be aware that young trees can absorb glyphosate through their relatively thin bark, so spray with care. We’ve never known this happen, but its allegedly a possibility. If you have evergreens in your hedge, be very careful to avoid their leaves (although in our experience, the waxy coating on Holly leaves makes them very resistant to chemicals).
During winter number three, you may need to repeat the weed control, though by this time the hedge plants should be starting to out-compete the weeds. You should also prune off the growing tips of the plants (remove apical dominance for the technical) to encourage more bushy growth. It may seem perverse to remove height from a plant you want to grow taller, but width and density are important too! If there are any side branches that are growing very strongly, prune these too—this is very light formative pruning.
Be patient! New hedge growth tends to be exponential—what seems like very slow progress in the early years very soon becomes “Blimey, the hedge wants trimming again”.
During winters four and five, continue with weed control if necessary, and formative pruning. At some time around now, you should expect to progress to proper hedge trimming.
If you have an easily accessed country hedge, employ your local agricultural contractor to flail mow it for you—it shouldn’t be too expensive, and will save you a lot of work.
If flail mowing isn’t an option, hire or buy a petrol-driven trimmer. We’ve found the pole mounted ones to be most effective, and you can do a surprisingly long run in a day.
Enjoy your hedge!