Forget Fences—Grow A Living Hedge

The art of hedge-laying may have gone out of style, but it’s a way to add functional beauty to your farm.

by Lynsey Grosfield
PHOTO: Kelvin Pulker/Flickr

While most people have heard of planting or trimming a hedge, the art of laying a hedge is one that has been somewhat lost to time outside of rural areas in the United Kingdom and Ireland. A task for autumn and winter gardens, hedge-laying involves bending living trees between 35 and 60 degrees in order to create a dense living barrier that is somewhat weatherproof, usually livestock-proof and also a safe haven for biodiversity.

Here’s what the basic steps of laying a hedge involves:

  1. Plant a row of saplings.
  2. Partially—and carefully—cut those saplings near the base to make them pliable while maintaining the integrity of the vascular tissues and bark on one side.
  3. Weave the trunks—now called “pleachers”—through the stakes.
  4. Trim the excess tissue from the base where the sapling was cut, making a “stobbin” from which new growth will arise, much like a pollarded tree.
  5. Trim the pleachers of vertical and side growth (a process called “snedding”) and remove deadwood every so often.
  6. Repeat the process when the initial pleachers die back (after 10 or 15 years).

In the United Kingdom, hawthorns are often used for the task. In fact, in Old English, the word “haw” means “hedge” or “fence.” However, incorporating a multitude of native trees into your living hedge are best for the local animal, fungal and insect life. Hedge-laying is a way to make natural elements of a local environment perform services for the gardener or farmer as well as the ecosystem at large. Instead of a “dead” fixture, like a fence, a living hedge is always alive with diverse life forms. Additionally, a sturdy hedgerow created using traditional techniques grows in strength over the years, provided proper maintenance; a fence does quite the opposite.

There are a variety of schools of thought when it comes to hedge-laying techniques, each with their functional and aesthetic merits. Whether the Midland, Cornish, Yorkshire or Devon style is used, however, the result is almost always as stunning as it is functional.

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