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Planting and maintaining a hedge

Berries and leaves of variegated holly

Image: Andy Hay

We recommend that cutting hedges and trees is avoided between March and August as this is the main breeding season for nesting birds.

Planting a hedge

  • Dig a trench a metre wide.
  • Mix in compost and position plants in a double row, spacing your tiny whips around 30 cm apart, and spreading the roots carefully. Use a line to ensure the plants are in a straight line. Firm the soil and water.
  • Remove half of the height of the plants after planting. This reduces wind rock and allows the roots to establish quicker. It also encourages bushy growth from near the base of the plant more quickly.
  • Newly planted hedges are vulnerable to damage by wind, drought and severe weather for the first 2-3 years. Keep moist, and mulch to prevent weeds.
  • Never plant climbers into a new hedge. Allow the hedge to establish first, otherwise the vigorous growth of the climbers can overcome the young shrubs. Once the hedge is old enough, climbing rose, dog rose, and honeysuckle can be planted.

Maintaining a hedge

A hedge needs to be managed to ensure it maintains its function as a shelter and refuge for wildlife and doesn't grow out of control and cause issues with neighbours, or reduces access.

  • Pruning depends on how you want the hedge to look. Cutting hedges at the same height and width every year can make the growing tips too woody, so losing their ability to produce new growth.
  • Encourage a bushier and denser hedge by cutting at least 2 cm above the previous year's growth. This keeps the hedge full of vigour and growth. It is easy to prune a hedge too heavily and lose the fruit.
  • Most hedge plants, such as hawthorn, flower and fruit on the previous years growth. Cut them every other year, or a proportion of them each year to allow flowering and fruiting. Cutting should be carried out in late winter after any berries have been eaten by birds. Avoid cutting during the nesting season between early March and the end of August.
  • Hard pruning of young plants encourages growth of lower branches, making the hedge dense from the base. Each winter remove at least half of the new seasons growth.
  • Standard trees growing from a hedge can enhances its wildlife value. The number you grow is dependent on the length of hedge and personal taste. You can plant a tree as part of a new hedge, or allow a strong shoot to develop unchecked from the top of the hedge, and remove sideshoots until the stem reaches the desired height. Then allow it to form a head by cutting the leading shoot. This will cause the tree to bush and form a crown. Such a tree will produce more berries and fruit than several yards of hedge of the same species.
  • The sides of the hedge should taper slightly towards the top to allow light and rainwater to reach lower foliage and the ground at the base. An ideal cross section is a flat topped 'A'.
  • Old, gappy hedges can be rejuvenated by laying or coppicing, which involves cutting stems to within 10-15cm (4-6 inches) of the ground. Fresh growth from the base creates a thicker hedge.
  • Keep the hedge free from rank grass and weeds for the first few years. A mulch of grass clipping or bark chippings along the bottom can suppress weeds and reduce water loss in dry weather. This greatly enhances the survival of the plants.

Tools for the job

  • Spade – for planting
  • Border fork - for planting and weeding
  • Hoe – for weeding
  • Secateurs – for trimming and pruning small twigs
  • Loppers – for trimming and pruning large twigs and branches
  • Hedging shears – for trimming hedge
  • Hedge trimmer – for trimming larger hedges
  • Bow saw – for coppicing and laying
  • Bill hook – for coppicing