I Know! Let’s Grow a Little, Native Hedgerow!

Why on Earth did we decide to plant a little native-hedgerow in our smallish garden, with its one flower bed and lawn…? What possessed us to order a batch of 50 tiny shoots of hawthorn, blackthorn, crab apple, bird cherry, field maple and hazel to plant out in said border…? Who the heck wants their garden edged by a wild, thorny and tangled array that usually is found around the edge of fields in the countryside…? Well, maybe it will all work out all right…

So, we’d moved into our bungalow just a week before the decision was made. Much of our time had been spent arranging furniture, and unpacking clothes, bedding, kitchenware and goodness knows what else, yet I’d managed to find time to fill a couple of bird feeders — one with a seed mix for wild birds, the other with sunflower seeds — and hung them out above the edge of the lawn, where they could clearly be viewed from my seat in the lounge. I’d sat and watched as I enjoyed a coffee, expecting maybe a curious great-tit, robin or sparrow to pay an inquisitive visit within the time it would take to drink it. Nothing!

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From left: the bird feeder stands empty by sparsely planted shrubs — what no trees? you can just make out the newly-planted whips to the rear of the bed; later on the bed if beginning to fill out.

Over the next couple of days we did not see a single bird in the whole garden, let alone by the feeders, except for a group of ravenous magpies who seemed to set up camp and made quite short work of our offerings. This lack of small birds was a bit of a puzzle as, having moved from just across the road, we knew there were many of them in the locale and that many of them were frequent visitors to our feeding stations. However, the most likely problem was the lack of trees or even large shrubs in our new property — no places to perch while waiting a turn on the feeders, no natural sources of fruit and grubs to exploit and no cover from the dominating magpies who really did seem to want all the seeds and space to themselves.

Our research into the best way of providing a better environment for birds to gather led us to considering native trees and shrubs as they had features that we desired: relatively fast growing; thorny and dense for cover and the ability to provide food sources in their fruits and the insects that should occupy them. In addition to this, we discovered that a careful choice of a variety of plants would provide attractive colour for our garden, in the form of pink and white blossom, and foliage in greens, reds and browns.

No doubt readers are familiar with the recent decline in positive results in the ‘windscreen test’ in the UK and many other countries. The test is to look at your car windscreen (bonnet and headlights too) after a reasonably long drive and clean off any squished bugs. The chances are that you won’t have a very long job — certainly easier than had you carried out the test twenty years ago. The number of insects to be found on the windscreen has dropped drastically in that time because (no rocket science here) the number of insects in the country has decreased drastically — and we need those insects back to fuel our environment (pollinate plants, eat annoying bugs like aphids and feed bigger organisms, such as birds). So, we were particularly attracted to the idea of providing a home for insects and, through the blossom of a hedgerow, nectar for bees and other pollinators.

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Early days but the sticks of hawthorn, blackthorn, tree cherry, filed maple and crab apple are bushing up and blending in the the shrubs.

Once the choice of growing the hedgerow was made, the next step was to investigate what to include in it — what types of plant/bush/tree, how many and how densely. Luckily, there is plenty of info online and quite a few companies that are most willing to sell you the stuff…

We went with Hedges Direct (despite their staggeringly uncreative name):

The bad news — the whips are junior plants, not as in junior school but more like any little one-year-old baby Junior who has the misfortune to be named after a parent. Each whip is basically a twig with roots, there are no leaves or any other sign of life as the plant has been plucked from the soil while it is dormant. This means the hedgerow will be relatively small for a few years yet, although we have found growth to be already very favourable in the fore-mentioned eighteen months since we planted it out. It also means the whips are only available and should be planted out in the dormant months from November to March.

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Here the emerging hedgerow plants are filling spaces between the shrubs and providing a backdrop for foxgloves, sunflower, scabious and dahlia flowers

Still, the good news keeps coming: those little baby whips are dead easy to put into the ground: get a spade, push it into the desired place in the soil, open the earth up a little (no digging required) and, well, put the whip into the ground. You can close the soil back up with the spade or your boot and that;s it. However, we did need to put in a bit of planning beforehand. First, to fit seven whips in a one-metre double row works out at four on the back row, about 25cm apart, which is almost exactly one welly-boot length so measuring out was easy! Secondly we ensured we spread the twenty five hawthorn whips in a fairly regular way throughout the seven metres but then assigned the other varieties — five each of blackthorn (potential bearers of sloes in future), hazel (which we’re nuts about), crab apple (no more asides), field maple and bird-cherry — more randomly.

Let’s cut to the present, eighteen months after planting out the hedgerow. Progress is encouraging as the bare-rooted sticks (whips) have all sprouted small branches and leaves (we may have to wait a bit longer for blossom) and have grown significantly in height— importantly, spreading out into each other and nearby shrubs. More birds are visiting and we’ve seen robins, dunnocks, great tits, blue tits and cole tits and had a fleeting visit from a gold crest. The feeder has been much busier as a result. More exciting than this was the arrival of a large moth through our French doors and onto our curtains. I captured the moth in an up-turned beer skiff and released it back out of the doors upon which it flew directly in the kind of straight trajectory for which the term bee-line was invented — straight into our new mini-hedgerow. A little research led to the identification of the moth as an ‘old lady’ which enjoys the habitat of black-thorn bushes such as those in our hedgerow: result!

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From left: growing tips of bird cherry, hawthorn and blackthorn blend together in the space between a weigela and tree peony; a bunch of passing starlings queue up to take dried worms from the feeder; the old lady moth on our curtains.