The Living Hedge
Starting all over
The digger raged through my garden one summer. In a single day I dispensed with my impenetrable hedge of hawthorn that had shredded me for years. I replaced it with another. A “mixed hedge” with witch hazel, forsythia, lilac and gentle rambling roses promising year-round colour and fragrance, still bushy enough though, to keep out straying eyes. The wish “not be seen” is, according to Anton Starkl of the famous Austrian nursery dynasty Starkl, “the” reason for planting a hedge.
More than most other Europeans Austrians have the strongest urge “to barricade ourselves behind a hedge” (so Starkl). Even the smallest front yard, of the smallest section has one. “Austria is the country of the hedge” (Starkl). Behind our own green walls we instinctively feel safer, better. And linguists of German know why. The German root “Hag” is fence, enclosure and the act of enclosement. Old meanings reflected in today’s common words “Hagebutte” (rose) hip or “Hagebuche” hornbeam or “behaglich” comfortable and the surname “Hager” the hedgerow worker. These words reveal a long and intimate relationship with hedges and hedging plants.
Today’s hedge king in Austria is the “import” northern white-cedar ‘Emerald’. Evergreen and fast growing in a compact pillar form, it’s viewed as ideal for the smaller section. Popular giant cypress shares its virtues, it also grows fast. Too fast! A fact that has converted many to true classic yew hedge. Yews last, growing well in sun or shade. They’re courted by gardeners prepared to be a little patient and prepared to pay a little more. Box, small and elegant is equally rewarding and equally demanding. The most splendid examples of both are found in Britain.
Forced by their 11th century Norman conquerors to keep hedgerows short for Frenchmen and hunting horses to comfortably clear, the English have perfected the art of hedge clipping. The secret is frequency. I clip my box and yew hedges three times a year. I begin early spring, nipping new twigs before they grow in the wrong direction. And another British secret: choose the dull days to do the cut to avoid ugly leaf burn and water the well afterwards. Ensure there’s drainage (yews hate permanent wet feet) and give them the best humus soil. “My Grandfather always said” laughs Starkl“Yews love manure”.
Europe’s 3000 year history of the actively planted hedge reflects constant adaptation to prevailing social and cultural needs. The economical value of hedges as a source of “cow fodder”, “firewood” or “building material” for dwellings and useful implements has declined. Today the hedge is a boundary definer; protector against wind and erosion and the creator of positive micro-climates. Ecology-minded compose hedges to provide “Lebensraum” for fauna and the life-style conscious employ it, for the much loved “outdoor room”.
And we can do more, says Starkl, “There’s room for more imagination”. Combine and mix. Try hornbeam in topiary form, plant fruit trees in the hedge. Plant clematis in the hedge, mix classic hedge plants. Compose a hedge for butterflies, for the berry lovers in the family; for birds. The hedge can provide the artistic medium to let fantasy fly.