This Irish childhood is filled with early memories of wild lush green hedgerows by the ditches of country roads. Of eating blackberries and bilberries, the Irish wild blueberry. Our little souls hid in the undergrowth, looking up at wild apple and plum trees, trying with all our might to reach them on our tippy toes, only to decide it would be easier to give the branch a good auld shake instead.
History of hedgerows.
Since at least medieval times hedgerows were grown widely across the UK. They were used as property boundaries, marked lines of defence, and to divide livestock. These hedgerows were maintained very well by skilled labourers.
Once labour began to diminish, especially after WW1, the hedgerows began to look unruly and they slowly began to vanish.
Sadder still is that very lately, due to land development and erection of highways, the hedgerows are being deliberately wiped out with the use of modern machines. Every time I see a tractor decimating a ditch, it breaks my little green heart. I guess it’s a symptom of the human disposition by some to think “if it looks like a mess”, to get rid of it.
However, since the hedgerows have started to vanish there have been notable discoveries made about the benefits of hedgerows regarding biodiversity.
Over hundreds of years, despite essentially being created by man, hedgerows had become wildlife corridors. In the UK, it’s thought that they may support up to 80% of woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of butterflies. Let’s don’t even think about the haven a hedgerow is for our bees. Ditches and barks associated with hedgerows are habitats for frogs, toads, newts and reptiles.
So why a hedgerow then?
While the natural, albeit initially man made hedgerows are disappearing, we can all re-boot the system and plant our own hedges are part of our own garden’s eco-system. When I was presented with a tricky landscaped steep hill-side retaining wall that was spread long and narrow across my front rural garden boundary, my first thoughts instantly brought me back to the hedgerows of my childhood.
I thought it could be a wonderful entry point for insects, bees, wild native birds and, most wonderfully, pests into my garden. ‘Oh they could attach whatever they like out here and I wouldn’t care if it saves the food crops out the back!’ What a cheerful thought I was having. So that cinched it and I got planning.
What is a hedgerow?
In it’s most simple natural state, a hedgerow is a line of closely spaced shrubs (often woody) and the occasional tree planted to form a barrier, or mark a boundary. It can be filled in with bulbs, annuals, perennials and groundcovers to suppress weeds.
Can you plant a suburban or urban hedgerow?
Absolutely! This age-old strategy is already being used on permaculture homesteads to help sustain urban food forests so I believe it’s a useful addition with benefits for any residential property.
Because a hedgerow is a narrow strip of mixed planking’s, opposed to a single species, it increases the biodiversity of it’s surroundings. Mimicking the forests edge it attracts wildlife and becomes self sustaining over time. It will self-mulch and self-water, its a noise and wind buffer and also recycles carbon as it filters the air.
What is planted in a hedgerow?
Hedgerows are mostly filled with perennials, but I have found it desirable to add annuals in at ground level for the first few years to fill the gaps while the hedgerow grows, they self seed anyway!
How long does it take for a hedgerow to establish?
It takes 4-8 years for the hedgerow to establish and after that will pretty much look after itself with minimum but occasional care from a gardener. For at least the first two years maintenance would include watering and weeding until it begins to fill out. The length of time that this will take depends on the gardens aspect and climate.
The 'magic formula' of hedgerow planting:
Hedgerows operate similarly to food forests in that you can choose plants depending what you want your hedgerow to do. For most, a mixture of small to medium tees, woody and herbaceous shrubs, nitrogen fixing plants, herbs, perennial flowers and ground covers of personal choice will create a beneficial hedgerow. If you choose to use dwarf fruit trees and berries, like I did, you can create a “Fedge”, an edible hedgerow to forage from that will delight the senses!
My very own hedgerow...
Right on schedule, my north facing hillside hedgerow has now hit the 4 year old mark, it’s coming into it’s own and filling out nicely.
It’s a compact hedgerow, measuring no longer than 10 metres (just shy of 33 feet) and just about a metre (3 feet) wide.
Firstly we’re began with three trees, all which are apples on semi-dwarf and dwarf root stock. One is the delicious Orange Pippin, one is the keeper Pink Lady, and the other is the reliable cooker Granny Smith.
Sub shrubs / Buffer shrubs
The woody shrubs that we have chosen include a blueberry bush, rosemary bush and English gooseberry bush. I have also planed perennial shrubs including a salvia and the structural and edible purple artichoke.
Ground Level/ Undergrowth
Underneath this again we have planted daffodil and jonquil bulbs, rudbeckia daisies, nasturtiums, alyssum, borage and pansies, which all provide seasonal colours to the area. Wild sorrel grows between these and well as clovers.
The first three years...
I began by weeding, sugar cane mulching, watering and continually planting here and there in gaps. Now this year I notice that it is now mulching itself with fallen leaves, and self-sowing quite readily throughout the four seasons.
The fourth year has me all...
I’ve considered that now it might be time for me to leave it alone. But it has me thinking. If this is what can happen in just four years, if this is how much nature can really flex and bounce, we should harness its power and plant hedgerows on any piece of land that we have to look after.
It has also delighted me to notice in this past year the cockatoos playing on the trees with my apples in an impressive game of kick-to-kick. The bees have lingered for the whole length of a winter and the daffodils now emerge at the sun’s very first finger-touch of warmth that hits the hill side.
While eating delicious berries under the trees is my romantic little memory of my childhood, it thrills me to let my sons out to own hedgerow to forage the berries and fruits, to identify the flowers and herbs in every season, and to listen to the stray robbers of the frogs, watch the lizards dart between the greenery and to wonder if there really is a rabbit burrowed underneath the prickly gooseberry of all things!
As serendipity has it...
I was also able to take my sons to Ireland last year, where we stayed in a little red roofed cottage in Co Galway. We burned the smallest amount of turf that kept us cosy, where there were rock walls that went on for miles, and an old medieval castle lay ruined in an abandoned field. It sat next to a lough simply containing one white boat and an overexcited gaggle of ducks that greeted us, expectantly seeking their obligatory breadcrumbs.
And oh my word, there were hedgerows! It was September and they were full of berries. Then I spotted across the lane, glorious Bilberries under an apple tree and we all got stuck under there together to indulge in our indigenous treat.
It tickled my green thumbs to know that yet another generation could experience this endangered activity.