RSPB Rye Meads

Garden hedges

Gardens need shelter from winds and may need screening for privacy - a hedge provides excellent natural shelter.

Garden hedges for wildlife

A hedge is an excellent natural shelter. It can be a flourishing home for wildlife and shield your garden from the wind. 

Fences are quick and easy to put up, but don’t offer much for any animals which might live in your garden. They can also deflect the wind in a way that can damage fragile plants. Hedges on the other hand, can be a mini paradise for animals, full of fruit, shelter and cover. In fact, for every foot of hedge height, there are ten horizontal feet of shelter! 

What makes up a hedge?

The best hedges are made up of several different species which come into leaf, flower and fruit at different times. This gives them year-round value for animal visitors. They’re also a great way of introducing mixed native hedgerow species and reflecting the surrounding natural countryside. In more urban gardens, you’ll have to keep on top of its growth though, as it can easily develop into a tall impenetrable thicket if you’re not careful!

The type of plant you have, or choose to have in your hedge, will affect its height. So as hedges are fairly permanent structures, you should think carefully about what to plant and how high you’d like it before you start. 

Why hedges can make great habitats

Hedges are important features of the countryside, forming corridors between habitats along which wildlife can disperse.

A native hedgerow is great for wildlife and contains hundreds of species, including those also found in woodland and meadows. 

In the last 50 years we have lost more than half our hedgerows, so planting one in your garden will really help wildlife.

Make the most of your garden

  • Add more species if your hedge has only one, e.g. ivy, clematis or wild honeysuckle. Or add some hedge-bottom plants, e.g. dead-nettles.
  • Chose native trees and shrubs for a new hedge, e.g. hawthorn, beech, spindle, blackthorn, hazel, holly, field maple, buckthorn.
  • Grow a variety of plants along the hedge bottom, e.g. dog’s violet, garlic mustard and hedge woundwort. It will become a wildlife haven.
  • Hedgerow berries provide birds with high-energy food in autumn and winter.
  • Trim once a year, preferably in winter and definitely not in the nesting season. Maintain an A shape, broad at the base. Don’t tidy up too much – leave leaf litter and seed heads to attract hedgehogs, birds, small mammals and insects.

Which plant to choose?

Plants like rosemary and heather are only suited to hedges up to 60cm (2 ft), but hawthorn and beech can grow much higher and be kept at around 1-3m (3–10 ft), or even taller!

Small trees, such as rowan and crab apple are also useful in a hedge. You can include them in a new hedgerow or encourage hawthorn and blackthorn to develop in an established one. 

Leyland Cypress has been a popular choice for a long time as it very easily forms an instant hedge shape. However, it grows very fast (1m per year) and can reach huge unmanageable heights. Generally speaking, its disadvantages can outweigh its advantages. It doesn’t have a lot of benefit to wildlife and tends to suck up all of the nutrients from a 3m radius. 

Whatever combination of plants you choose, a hedge can be a welcome and useful part of our gardens and a great home for nature. 

Hawthorn, hedge, berries, Green lane, Norfolk

Planting a hedge

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

You will need to:

  • Dig a trench a metre wide.
  • Mix in compost and position plants in a double row, spacing your tiny whips around 30cm 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.

Maintenance

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.

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

  • 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 enhance 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.
Waxwing adults feeding in hedge of Wild privet, Bedfordshire, England

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
Trowel and fork in soil

The law and garden hedges

House sparrow in hedge

Spare a thought for your neighbours when planning a hedge, as they can be the cause of many disagreements.