Close to the hedge

Wild flower meadows may be fashionable, but they're difficult to manage. Try creating an Irish-style shrub bank instead, says Anna Pavord
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The Independent Online
Our holiday, this year as last, was spent sailing along the south- west coast of Ireland, from Kinsale to Dingle. If you are lucky with the weather (we were) you can scarcely find a better cruising-ground: slow- drawn Guinness and scallops ashore, fine, solitary anchorages and a landscape like Sibelius, rising in a stunning crescendo as you goose-wing your way up the long reach of the Kenmare river.

On beached Valentia Island, which once hoped, thanks to Marconi, to be the buzzing hub of a new transatlantic telecommunications industry, we bicycled ourselves silly, hauling up the long, hot hills to zoom down the other side between tall hedge-banks of fuchsia. There's nothing like a bike for giving you a sense of ridiculous speed.

The banks themselves were showstoppers. The fuchsia (plain, green-leaved F magellanica) was in full flood, with sheaves of orange-flowered crocosmia filling in underneath. Where the banks had ditches running alongside them, feathery plumes of meadowsweet were added to the mix, together with fronds of the royal fern, Osmunda regalis. Small knobs of blue sheep's bit scabious bobbed up at intervals, along with the sherbet-yellow stems of toadflax, Linaria vulgaris, and purple vetch.

Plodding up the hills through the enfilades of fuchsia (I've never quite got the hang of 15-gear bikes) I was thinking about the difficulties of using wild flowers in the garden. Wild flower meadows, so fashionable and so much written about over the last five years, are extraordinarily difficult to manage properly, mostly because, in gardens, they are made on ground that is too good for them. Bullies thrive at the expense of the flowers one was hoping to encourage.

But the hedge-bank has the inbuilt advantage of being a much more starved environment, encouraging to certain decorative plants, discouraging to nettles, docks and hogweed. There is no reason why you could not adapt the idea to make a garden boundary, running perhaps along the back of a garden. The Irish hedge-banks were first thrown up with stones cleared from the fields they surrounded. In the garden, it could be a way of getting rid of all the pieces of broken concrete, brick, clinker and other detritus that you find when you take over a new place and start to clear it.

The best way to make the bank would be to sandwich layers of stone and rubble with layers of old turf (the kind of stuff you might strip off a garden in order to make a new lawn), with a thin layer of soil to keep everything level. The layers should taper, to a top that is narrower than the base.

All this may take time, but that doesn't matter. Despite television's desire to turn everything - archaeology, cooking, gardening - into races against time, the point of gardening is that you don't have to do it against the clock. It should be a release from, and a panacea for, all those things in life that do require endless clock-watching.

The hedge itself should be planted along the top of the finished bank in a channel of soil that you have incorporated between the two faces of stone. Don't try to start with big plants. They won't settle fast enough to be able to sustain themselves. I would guess that the original Irish fuchsia hedges were set with semi-hardwood cuttings, side-shoots with a "heel" of old wood, torn off in autumn and stuck straight into the ground. This is a cheap, low-tech way of increasing stock, the method that our old neighbour always used to make extra plants to thicken his flowering boundary in Dorset.

The fuchsia, of course, is naturalised in Ireland. It isn't a native wild flower, any more than the crocosmia is. To some xenophobic naturalists, this matters. I don't think it does. We've developed a taste for sun-dried tomatoes and lemon grass. Why shouldn't butterflies be allowed a sip of buddleia, and bumblebees their fuchsias?

But the point of the garden hedge-bank is that it should seem natural, even if it contains a mix of native and naturalised plants. To that end, avoid incorporating any plants that are too garden-esque. Fat, fleshy- flowered fuchsias would not be right in this situation. Use F magellanica or its hybrid `Riccartonii', which does not grow so tall. If you plant in early autumn, the newcomers will have had time to settle themselves in before there is any question of drought. The roots will have the opportunity to travel down between the stones to gather up water where they can.

The same goes for crocosmia, which, if you want to emulate the Irish effect completely, you ought to plant in the sides of the bank. Forget the posh hybrids, such as the brilliant `Lucifer' and the stunning, bronze- leaved `Solfaterre', and go for the tough old cottage garden plant that often goes under the name of "montbretia". The corms can be worked into pockets up the sides of the bank - again, planting in autumn rather than spring.

Western Ireland is generally wetter and warmer than most of England apart from Devon and Cornwall. Bear this in mind if you plan to make a hedge- bank yourself. You should already have noticed, if you live in the kind of place where fuchsia crumples up in winter. Even if it does, as ours did in normally balmy Dorset last winter, established plants will generally spring new shoots from the base. They will make 4ft of growth in a season.

Truly wild flowers such as vetch are probably best introduced as "plugs" - small plants with good rootballs - in spring. The Irish one we saw was the showy tufted vetch, Vicia cracca, with long spikes of bluish-purple flowers drifting up to a more pinkish purple at the tips. It is a beauty, and flowers over a long period from June to August, scrambling by way of its tendrils over all sorts of other vegetation in the hedge-banks. It is a more telling plant than either the common vetch or the bush vetch. Bush vetch has bigger individual flowers, but fewer of them. It's better in shade, though, than the tufted vetch, and that is a useful attribute.

The toadflax is like a snapdragon shrunk in the wash, and the colour is acid and sharp, the best sort of yellow to see against the magenta of the fuchsia. But don't fuss too much about colour combinations. The core concern of gardening in the wild style is to choose plants that will appreciate and thrive in the particular habitat you are providing. Adopt nature's own magnificent unconcern about the supposed solecism of yellow getting into bed with magenta.

Other wild flowers to try in the hedge-bank might include pink sainfoin, greater stitchwort for spring, red campion, the greater celandine (a medicinal herb in medieval times), jack-by-the-hedge (Alliara petiolata), wild strawberry, herb robert, hedge bedstraw and hedge woundwort.

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