One of the first things Mr. Fairweather did when we got this plot was to put down a stockproof hedge between us and the neighbouring field. A good stockproof hedge comprises in its most basic form a mix of hawthorn and blackthorn. You can of course add in other native plants such as dog rose or holly.
Hawthorn has mildly poisonous spikes that are quite brittle and break off underneath the skin so you need to be careful handling them. But these are the armour and defences of your hedge. The glossy green leaves emerge late March and it produces clouds of white flowers from May to June. These then go on to produce deep red haws which due to a high pectin content are often used to make jelly as well as feeding the birds in the autumn. Beware the seeds though which are poisonous.
Blackthorn provides the structure for your hedge. It will shoot up from root suckers and bolster the hedge thickening it up over time. Blackthorn flowers appear in March and April before the leaves making it a bit of a showstopper and coupled with the dark stems makes it easy to spot in the hedgerows and ditches along the roads. Its leaves contrast with the hawthorn’s in that they are a dull green. The fruits, called sloes, appear in autumn and are sour tasting so tend to be reserved for jellies and flavouring sloe gin.
When starting a hedge, use good bare rooted plants approximately two years old or around knee height. The rule of thumb to remember is three hawthorn for every one blackthorn for every foot. So when working out your quantities, that’s four plants for every foot of hedging you want. Try and select plants that have a single sturdy stem and good bushy roots. Don’t buy plants that have already been cut back by the nursery. They won’t have been cut low enough and you want the plant to bush out. Cutting it back twice in the same year will put it under too much pressure. If you don’t have good rich well drained soil then lay in a mix of well-rotted manure and sand. Our soil was great so we simply stuck in a spade and footed the roots in. Once the plants are in, cut back to about 4″ in height. Some places will tell you to lay black plastic down around the base of the plant but this goes against our own efforts to reduce the amount of plastic laying around. Ours is a small hedge so we opted to go for twice yearly maintenance pulling weeds and strimming around the plants. Alternatively, you could put a good mulch down around the plants and keep topping up. But only do this if you have cleared all the weeds first.
For the next three winters cut the plants back to about a foot of that year’s growth. This will keep encouraging the plants to fill out. After about four years we were able to start cutting it into a hedge shape. Trust me, it will be worth the wait. Just remember not to trim hedges while the birds are still nesting.
All so easy? Naturally this wouldn’t be one of my stories if it had all gone smoothly. We miscalculated the number of hawthorn plants needed so the very end of our hedge is all blackthorn and fairly pathetic looking. Mr. Fairweather has had enough and has decided to do a bit of propagation before the hedge gets trimmed again. So here is our step by step guide to free hawthorn plants.
Dig a trench. The depth and width of your spade and length is really up to you. Fill the trench with sand to a depth of about five inches. This is to allow good drainage. You don’t want your cuttings to rot over the winter.
Take cuttings off the hawthorn. (He also took a few off the blackthorn.) They need to be lovely straight stems, preferably the thickness of a pencil.
Strip them of lower two thirds of the leaves. Leaving too many leaves on drains the plant of its moisture too quickly. Keep the base of the stems soaked in water as you are doing this. The whole process is stressful enough on the plant.
Each cutting is then dipped in rooting hormone powder. If you don’t have hormone rooting powder or want to try something a bit more natural and ‘green’ try either of these. Saliva: Sounds crazy I know. Spit on the cutting first and then dip in some ordinary cinnamon powder. Saliva is supposed to be a natural root enhancer, while cinnamon is anti-bacterial and will help to keep cuttings free of disease while rooting. Alternatively try honey. It is also naturally anti-bacterial but don’t use it neat. Boil a cup of water and stir in half a tablespoon of honey. Once it’s cool, you can dip the cuttings into it. Alternatively, it makes a great hair conditioner, but that’s a whole other blog post.
Once the cuttings are dipped you can then place into your previously prepared trench. Place cuttings into the sand in two rows – one at either side of trench. The cuttings should rest against the outer edge of trench to help keep them upright when backfilling.
The remaining soil carefully backfilled and pressed down firmly.
The cuttings are then well watered in several times a day for the next few days.
Now we wait to see how they survive the winter. All going well, these cuttings will have rooted and grown and we can plant them into the end of the hedge to fill in the gaps.