Plant a hedge for wildlife

Hedges provide excellent natural shelter, both for us and wildlife. Garden hedges protect our outdoor spaces from strong winds, while also offering screening for privacy. But they really come into their own as a source of food and habitat for the wildlife in your garden.

A lone Juvenile Wren perched on a branch.
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Worried you don’t have space for a hedge? Why not give our hedge wedge a try, and just use a small corner of the garden to grow a few hedge plants. 

Yet to plant a hedge? Here’s why you should consider a hedge for your next garden project.

Hedges vs fences

Fences are quick to put up, but they don’t offer much for the insects and animals that live in your garden. They’re also prone to blowing over in strong winds, causing damage and leaving you with a hefty repair bill.

Hedges, on the other hand, can be a mini paradise for wildlife, full of fruit, shelter and cover. In fact, for every foot of hedge height, there are ten horizontal feet of shelter! Hedges can also act as a wind buffer, allowing the breeze to diffuse through the hedge.

Short on space? Try a hedge wedge

Don’t feel you have room to plant a complete hedge? Our wildlife garden expert, Adrian, has invented the hedge wedge!

Simply plant up one corner with hedge plants – 30cm away from boundaries, and the plants 30cm apart. This can then create a corner thicket, which is likely to become the prime spot for nesting birds and all sorts of wildlife. It’d also be an ideal place to put a Hedgehog house.

Are hedges wildlife-friendly?

Hedges are key features of our countryside, forming protected corridors between habitats for wildlife to travel. A native hedgerow typically contains hundreds of wildlife species. In the last 50 years we have lost more than half our hedgerows, so planting one in your garden will really help wildlife.

A closeup of a Wild Rose, or Dog Rose bush.

Want a free wildlife-friendly gardening guide?

Our guide is full of ideas for welcoming nature into your outdoor space. Put a few of our tips into action and your garden will be buzzing with wildlife in no time. 

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The best wildlife hedge plants

The best hedges are made up of several different species that flower and fruit at different times. This gives them year-round value for wildlife. They’re also a great way of introducing mixed native hedgerow species and reflecting the surrounding natural countryside.

A yearly trim will help keep your hedge to a manageable height, but as hedges are fairly permanent structures, do think carefully about how high you’d like it before you start.

Trees & shrubs

Choose native trees and shrubs to form the main structure of your hedge. These are all great for wildlife and can be kept at around 1-3m (3-10ft) or taller:

  • Hawthorn
  • Beech*
  • Spindle*
  • Blackthorn
  • Hazel*
  • Holly
  • Field Maple*
  • Buckthorn
  • Rowan*
  • Crab Apple*

*Worried about thorns? The majority of our native trees and shrubs are not thorny. Those marked with a * in the list above are thorn-free.

Leyland Cypress has been a popular choice for a long time as it’s fast-growing and easy to shape. However, it can grow 1m per year, quickly reaching unmanageable heights. It also doesn’t have a lot of benefit to wildlife, and tends to suck up moisture and nutrients from a 3m radius. Generally, its disadvantages outweigh its advantages in our eyes!

If you'd prefer a low-growing more formal hedge, choose plants like Rosemary and Lavender as they'll grow up to 60cm (2ft). For taller formal hedging plants, try Viburnum Tinus and Escallonia. All are drought-tolerant and great for pollinating insects.

A lone Fieldfare perched on Hawthorn eating red berries.

Climbers & ramblers

Allow the hedge to become established for a few years, then plant climbers to ramble and weave their way through the hedge. Avoid planting climbers into a new hedge, as their vigorous growth can smother younger plants. Climbers bring flowers for pollinators, as well as berries for birds:

  • Ivy (the native Hedera helix)
  • Dog rose
  • Native honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum or cultivars of)
A two storey building entirely covered by ivy, with only the windows breaking the blanket of greenery.

Hedge foot plants

You can also sow a hedgerow wildflower mix to create ground cover and low growing flowers for wildlife. Lots of brands sell mixes and here's some tips on what to look for:

Make sure they are genuine native UK provenance (it’ll usually tell you on the website)

Some mixes come with both grasses and flowers. For your purposes, aim for a hedgerow mix of flowers only - there's usually 15 to 20 different species in the mix.

They sell mixes for specific habitats, such as different grasslands, wetlands, woodlands or hedges. You need to find the hedge mix.

A large wildflower meadow with bright multicoloured flowers.

What you'll need

  • Hedge plants - sold as tiny whips. Spaced 30cm apart, in a double row.
  • Spade – for planting
  • Border fork - for planting
  • Secateurs – for planting, trimming and pruning small twigs
  • Watering can
  • Hoe – for weeding
  • Loppers – for trimming and pruning large twigs and branches
  • Hedging shears – for trimming
  • Hedge trimmer – for trimming larger hedges
  • Bow saw – for coppicing
  • Bill hook – for coppicing
A volunteer stood amongst undergrowth, with a cutting tool in their hand.

How to plant a hedge

Step one

Dig a trench a metre wide.

Step two

Mix in garden compost and or well-rotted manure, not peat, into your trench. Position the plants in a double row, spacing the whips around 30cm apart, and spreading the roots carefully. You can plant them in a straight line, or a soft wave for a more natural look.

Step three

Firm the soil with your boot, and water the plants generously. Add a layer of mulch, such as bark or grass cuttings, to keep weeds down.

Step four

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 plants.

Step five

Newly planted hedges are vulnerable to damage by wind, drought and severe weather for the first 2-3 years. If they’re in an exposed position, it might be worth staking with bamboo canes.

Step six

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 established, climbers can be added.

How to prune a hedge

Hedge and tree cutting should be avoided between March and August, as this is the main breeding season for nesting birds.

Pruning depends on how you want your hedge to look. Hard pruning of younger plants in a new hedge encourages growth of lower branches, making the hedge dense from the base.

Cutting hedges at the same height and width each year can make growing tips woody, losing their ability to produce new growth. Encourage a bushier hedge by cutting at least 2cm above the previous years growth. This helps keep the hedge in full vigour and growth.

A wide shot of red Berberis thunbergii growing in a garden.

When to prune a hedge

Most hedge plants flower and fruit on the previous year's 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.

Don’t tidy up too much – leave leaf litter and seed heads to attract Hedgehogs, birds, small mammals and insects.

A glut of red crab apples hanging heavy on their branch.

This activity is part of Nature On Your Doorstep – our call-to-arms to transform your outdoor space (window boxes welcome!) into a wildlife haven.