Ingrid Derbyshire arrived in this country on holiday from New Zealand's North Island, got married to an Englishman and two years ago moved to a cottage near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The garden, like the cottage, needed a lot of attention. It had some vast, overgrown conifers and jungles of stinging nettles which pushed up through forsythia, buddleia and cotoneaster. There were remnants of coloured primroses, columbines and an impenetrable mound of bramble which marked the bottom boundary of the property. This was where Mrs Derbyshire wanted her hedgerow.
By the time I arrived, she had heroically cleared the brambles, so that there was an uninterrupted view from the bottom of the garden over to the field beyond. The remains of an enormous bonfire showed how hideous the task must have been. The clearing revealed the stop gaps of the last 50 years. Corrugated iron mostly.
Sheets of rusting corrugated iron are art objects now, of course, and Mrs Derbyshire and I tried very hard to do the right thing by them. We squinted this way and that, we tried to take them by surprise, but the furrowed, crumbling junk failed to fill the heart with joy. Off to the scrap heap, we said.
Mrs Derbyshire's letter had already suggested a few of the things she wanted her hedge to do. Standing at the bottom of the garden we ran through a few more check points. Did she want the hedge to keep out stock, or keep in pets or children? No, she said, that wasn't a priority. Did she want it to block out something she didn't want to see? No, rather the reverse. She wanted the hedge to be no more than about five feet high, so that she could see over it into the field beyond.
Did she want it to provide shelter from the wind? The boundary faces east and I would imagine in this flattish land there would be some corkers blowing from the east during the winter. No, said Mrs Derbyshire. The view was more important than the wind.
And finally, did she want the hedge to produce things for the larder: elderberries for wine, hazelnuts for winter stores? No, thank you very much, she said. She had plenty enough to do without going in for that sort of thing. So the hedge only had to do two things: provide food and shelter for wildlife and some visual pleasure for Mrs Derbyshire herself.
Most wild English hedgerows are random mixes of the native trees that thrive in that particular region - ash, elder, hazel, hawthorn, field maple - but they have to be kept in check each year, jumped on firmly to keep them within bounds. Mrs Derbyshire is going to have to learn the art of hedge trimming. Laying it in the old-fashioned way would be even better.
But these are problems of the future. The present reality is a 30ft strip of vigorous nettle and other weed, and a limited budget for plants to replace them. Assets include five field maples, Acer campestre and two bright-stemmed dogwoods, one red, one yellow, which Mrs Derbyshire thought might brighten up the hedge.
The field maples were a good choice. They are tolerant plants, will take clipping and the leaves turn lovely shades of yellow and orange in autumn. Planted 18 inches apart, they would account for seven and a half feet of the hedge. I would mix them in with other things. Mrs Derbyshire could try hawthorn, which is a superb tree for birds. They appreciate the cover of its spiky denseness and the red berries provide winter food. The wild hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, has creamy-white blossom in spring, but the blossom is not as abundant in a hedge that is clipped frequently as it is on a free-standing tree. Small plants grow away faster than big ones, which makes it cheap to buy, and you plant it 15-18 inches apart. Six plants set 15 inches apart would cover another seven and a half feet. That is half the length accounted for.
Then, of course, there are the dogwoods. It is not a common hedge plant, I suppose because its growths are spacy and upright rather than interweaving. To get the best coloured bark, you have to cut out some of the old growths in early spring. It could push its new stems up between the arms of neighbours on either side. The dogwoods, grown in this way, would account for perhaps another five feet of the hedge.
Some evergreen would be an asset. There is already a big old laurel at the bottom of the garden, but in a wild hedgerow, one or two hollies would be more appropriate. They, too, are excellent in terms of wildlife and perhaps Mrs Derbyshire could leave them to grow up into proper trees, rising from the five foot level to make landmarks in the hedge. A further five feet might be taken up by the two hollies, though they will be much slower than the other ingredients of the hedge to claim their living space.
That leaves just five feet to be filled by some other plant. I would favour the wayfaring tree, Viburnum lantana, which is very solid in a hedge. It has clusters of blossom in late May, berries which, like old- fashioned gob-stoppers, change from green to yellow and then red or black. And the foliage turns a pleasant vinous colour in autumn. Mrs Derbyshire's neighbour said it was common in local hedgerows. That was a good sign.
Unfortunately there are plenty more weeds to be dealt with in the area where the hedge is going to go. It would be a waste of good plants to expect them to fight the bullies that are squatting in possession at the moment. Glyphosate would be my answer, as in the herbicide Roundup, but the question of whether or not to use herbicides is not something you can advise on.
Glyphosate is extremely effective in killing any green stuff it touches but the important thing about it is that it is non-residual. It does not poison the earth, only the weeds. I would treat the area twice through the next six months so that when October came (the best month for planting hedges) the worst of the weeds would be overcome. Then Mrs Derbyshire could get on with the interesting part of the job.
Hedging plants are available by mail-order from Kingsfield Conservation Nursery, Broadenham Lane, Winsham, Chard, Somerset TA20 4JF (0460 30070); Buckingham Nurseries, 14 Tingewick Road, Buckingham, Bucks MK18 4AE (0280 813556); Weasdale Nurseries, Newbiggin-on-Lune, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria CA17 4LX (0539 623246); and Dingle Nurseries, Welshpool, Powys SY21 9JD (0938 555145). For a full account of hedges and how to select, plant and grow them, read Jeffrey Whitehead's Hedges (Robert Hale £9.99).Reuse content