Hedgerows sound kind of old-fashioned, and you might think that they would fit better into a traditional English countryside rather than a modern American landscape. Nowadays people might call them ‘screens’, rather than a hedgerow. A ‘screen’ is just that. It blocks undesirable views and marks property lines. But in England, where hedgerows have been present for 800 years or more, they can be described as “the patchwork quilt of the English countryside”. Usually marking boundary lines, hedgerows act like a living fence but are much wider than a typical American screen which usually contains just one kind of plant like arborvitaes or laurels lined up in a row.
Think of a hedgerow as a strip of densely planted trees, shrubs, and other plants forming a border or barrier. An oasis of biodiversity, especially in agricultural landscapes which usually are barren of diversity, hedgerows are the lifeblood of the English countryside. Forming interconnecting highways of vegetation, animal and insect species can live all their lives in these rich habitats. Some hedgerows in England are ancient and contain lots of species of plants. It is even illegal to remove them without first getting permission and there are hedgerow regulations in place protecting them.
Essential to many species, hedgerows offer warmth, protection, and nesting areas for many animals, including hedgehogs which are a threatened species in England and many parts of Europe. A good hedge for hedgehogs (Erinaceus europeus) is one that has a thick base, with tussocky vegetation, linking habitats in the landscape. In the U.S. we don’t have hedgehogs, but we have opossums, shrews, moles, and porcupines that thrive in these same habitats.
In the US, we should be imitating the English hedgerow in order to reap these benefits:
- Support local wildlife such as birds, insects, and small mammals
- Provides travel lanes for wildlife
- Creates micro-climates and reduces watering needs
- Provides a buffer to wind, noise, and pollution
- Gives you privacy
- Adds beauty with fall foliage, berries, flowers, and evergreen structure in winter
- Provide a harvest
- Low maintenance fencing
What to Plant
A hedgerow should include a wide variety of large and understory trees, berry and nut bushes, flowering and native trees and shrubs, evergreen trees and shrubs, herbs, vines, flowers, and ground covers. The sky’s the limit for your species as your aim is diversity with a mix of evergreen and deciduous. Focusing on natives, you have a huge palette of plants to choose from. Hedgerows consist of mostly perennial species and quick-growing annuals can fill in the gaps of a young hedgerow until it becomes established.
Starting a Hedgerow
Along the boundary of my property, I had to remove 43 large diseased spruce trees that left a huge void, and I realized this was a perfect opportunity to start a hedgerow. (pic of dead trees)I wanted to plant species that provide berries and nuts for wildlife and nectar for pollinating insects. Deciding on a hedgerow of about 15-20’ wide, I left all the chips from the trees on the ground to decompose and add compost to the soil. (pic of chips) This also killed any underlying turf grass. Slowly over time, I am planting all kinds of shrubs, trees, and perennials. As a landscape designer, I have access to many plants that are left over from different jobs and have placed them into the hedgerow. Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Witchalders (Fothergillia spp.), Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica), Paw Paw (Asimia triloba), Inkberry (Ilex glabra), Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), Dogwoods (Cornus spp.), Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.), Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), Wild Roses (not Multi-flora), and Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), have all made their way into the hedgerow. Once I have the foundation plants done, I will start with perennials, grasses, vines, and annuals to fill in. I am also planting in a random pattern for depth. (pic of shrubs planted between tree stumps)
I weed by hand any weeds that grow up at the base of my shrubs, so they aren’t competing with them for resources. But as plants fill in, the opportunity for weeds to seed in will diminish. Planting my selections closely should shade out any weeds that try to come up. I trimmed the shrubs that I planted almost down to the ground (about 18” tall), the first spring so that they will bush out and become thicker and fuller. I consider this a multi-year project that can be added to over time as resources become available. The chip mulch will remain in place for years and as it decomposes, I will add more compost and other organic material.
Claire is a horticulturalist and landscape design consultant. Owner of Claire Jones Landscapes, LLC, Claire’s designed gardens have been featured in print publications like WSJ and Style Magazine. A garden writer at The Garden Diaries, Claire maintains 3 honeybee hives and gardens at her home in Maryland.