Maybe you are settling into an experiment with country living. Maybe you want to block out those inevitable hazards, neighbors. Maybe you want to give your garden shape, shape and style. What you need is a hedge.
Between the recent days of heavy rainfall there have been some excellent English interludes for planting, at least on well-drained soil. Impatient hedgies are now well catered for. Specialized growers offer much taller and older hedging plants than the ones I have hitherto recommended.
They grow them in shallow troughs from which they can be removed and dropped straight into a newly dug trench. The plants arrive at least 4ft high, ready trimmed. They look like a hedge from day one. They probably sound irresistible.
Two proven suppliers of instant hedging are Best4hedging and Hopes Grove Nurseries. They deliver the length you want within the mainland UK and will gladly teach you how to spend it and how to tend it. Naturally, a trough of tall hedging is far more expensive than individual bushes, supplied with bare roots.
A 4ft-long trough of yew to a height of about 4ft costs £ 139.99 plus VAT from Best4hedging. An instant hedge about 15 yards long will set you back some £ 2,000, though discounts sometimes apply to orders of that length.
These suppliers will tell you how to maintain what they sell. Watering is crucial, as the plants will need it at least twice a week during their first growing season. If Mother Nature does her wicked worst and sends a dry summer, you will be watering even more, as long as it is allowed. You cannot abandon your new arrival and head off for a fortnight on a beach unless you have paid someone to continue watering for you.
When the troughs arrive, 4ft of height may not look as impressive as you hoped: it is only the height of a low hedge. You can go higher, but at a cost. As I am wary of overspending, I reserve these slot-in troughs for places where a bit of an old hedge has suddenly died back: they fill in the gap far quicker than a traditional young plant.
Otherwise, I try not to be instant, believing that in 10 years’ time my hedges planted at about 1½ft high will have overtaken your taller starters dropped in for a small fortune. I may not persuade impulse buyers.
Whichever starting point you choose, preparation of the soil around and below the hedge is crucial. Best4hedging offers fertilizers, root-promoters and so forth, all of which are excellent. Like me, they recommend good old bonemeal, best applied around and below a new hedge’s roots when it is planted in early spring. Bonemeal acts slowly and steadily but it encourages good roots.
Rotted manure helps to improve the texture of the soil and a packet of Rootgrow, rich in mycorrhizas, is also helpful if it is still fresh when applied. Much the same effect can be achieved by filling a big bag with rotted leaves, the dark leaf mold that forms on ground around big trees. It is naturally rich in mycorrhizas and will not have deteriorated after weeks in a pack or in transit.
Which are the best plants to choose? Best4hedging has a very full range of pictures of the varieties they stock, but much depends on the site, climate and your needs. In recent urban developments, let alone at the Chelsea Flower Show, I have been expected to welcome stretches of “native” British hedging, like transplanted fragments from a model farm. In a country garden, near to miles of them, strips of whitethorn and hazel would be decidedly dull.
If you want truly native hedging, evergreen yew is still top of the class, as it is classy everywhere, totally hardy and easily trimmed into shape. When trimmed it should never produce berries, let alone enough to poison visitors, so disregard scare stories about its “danger” as a hedge. It grows quite quickly if the ground is fully prepared and laced with bonemeal.
Two of my favorite alternatives are also evergreen and totally hardy, white-flowered Osmanthus burkwoodii and brightly berried pyracantha. An osmanthus hedge will reach at least 6ft in height and has a classy dark olive-green look to it. If you want it to flower, you should trim it only in late May after flowering and then live with the untidiness of new growth later in the year, on which the next crop of flowers will appear.
The pyracanthas can be clipped to a neat 5ft-6ft too. Despite the online offerings, choose only the Saphyr varieties, which are far more resistant to fire blight, the family’s one killer. A mixed hedge of the red and yellow-berried ones is spectacular in October and remains evergreen all year. The thorns deter rabbits.
In warmer gardens, including those near the Mediterranean, I rate hedges of evergreen abelia, pink-white in flower all summer. They have a good survival rate in warm gardens in Britain too, especially in cities, and can be cut to stop at about 5ft. Butterflies appreciate them more than a hedge of dull old British hawthorn. However, I would not rely on them in an open site exposed to heavy winter frost.
What about low hedges now that box is imperilled not just by box blight but by box moth too? I am learning to appreciate one of the widely marketed substitutes, Euonymus japonicus Jean Hugues. It will stop at a height of about 3ft if clipped and is totally hardy. The green of the leaves is much darker than box but it is not impossibly sombre. Clipped squares of it are a tolerable box-substitute.
Even better is the evergreen sometimes known as Christmas Box, Sarcococca confusa, which can be readily clipped to about 2ft-3ft, though clipping reduces its scented little white flowers at this time of year, a great asset, especially near the doors of a house . Sarcococca has been feared to be prone to blight, like true box, but I have yet to see evidence: confusa is tough, town-compatible and willing to grow in shade.
For speed and elegance, my winners are pittosporums. The best hedger in the family is the plain green tenuifolium, whose waxy leaves are rightly popular with flower arrangers. This excellent plant will grow up to 10ft or so if you wish, especially as a column clipped against a high wall, but it can also be topped and kept to a height of about 6ft.
In open, frost-swept sites it is not hardy, but in enclosed warmer gardens or beside a sunny wall it is a survivor. When sheltered, it grows extremely fast, reaching a good height in just three years.
Impatient hedgers, please note: for a tall hardy evergreen hedge the cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, is the fastest of the good bets and for a sheltered hedge, green pittosporum is excellent. Instant hedging is all very fine but these two choices will soon take it over, saving you the expense of short-circuiting good old patience.