Planning, planting & maintaining a native hedge

Holly and hawthorn hedging

• Choose native hedge plant species that are happy in your area depending on soil type and amount of light/partial shade, and water level of soil.
• Choose very young native hedge plants, called whips, which are 40 – 60 cms tall (One to two years old, grow more vigorously, and cheapest to buy). These will root and grow most readily, though you will need to be patient before you get a healthy, bushy hedge with flowers and fruit – but it will be worth it!
• Calculate the number of plants at 3 – 5 per metre for a single row.
If you want a thick bushy hedge plant 2 rows, 40 cms apart, with the front row planted opposite the spaces in the row behind, so from above it looks like a zig-zag pattern. Thick and bushy is best for wildlife!
• Measure your space and draw a simple diagram to work out how many plants you will need.
• Ideally order them from a local dealer who has grown them in your region, or at least ‘UK and Ireland Sourced and Grown (UKISG)’ – they will often provide mixed packs of different species. Search the internet for ‘native hedge plants uk’. The Woodland Trust gives good advice and choice, but other suppliers are helpful too.
• When you receive your plants, treat them gently and keep the roots damp, to prevent damaging delicate roots and root hairs, and drying out.

Native hedge plants may include:

Hawthorn (Craetegus monogyna ) – most common and likely to make up 50% – 75% of a mixed native hedge pack.
Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – may spread
Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus) – deciduous shrub
Dog Rose (Rosa canina) – vigorous and may need some support, deciduous shrub
Gorse (Ulex europaeus)- evergreen shrub
Holly (Ilex aquifolium) – evergreen, may spread
Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) – very hardy, crimson stems
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) – can be left to mature into a small/medium tree
Wild cherry (Prunus avium) – can be left to mature into a small/medium tree
Crab apple (Malus sylvestris) – can be left to mature into a small/medium tree
Field maple (Acer campestre )
Wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare ) – semi-evergreen shrub
Yew (Taxus baccata) – evergreen, vigorous when established, NB Highly toxic to animals and humans if seeds, leaves or wood are eaten.

These are all species of native trees (apart from the Dog Rose, Guelder Rose, Gorse, and Wild privet, which are shrubs), and, if given the space, time, and optimum conditions, would grow into mature trees. However, by trimming the plants each year, we are causing them to bush out low on the stem and form a hedgerow when planted close together. You can leave some plants to grow into trees if you wish, by putting a high stake beside them so that they are not trimmed each year.

Native hedgerows with a mix of species are important habitats for a wide range of invertebrates, insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals – providing food, shelter and habitat through all seasons. They can provide ‘green corridors’ between woodlands, parks, and riverbanks – helping to link urban areas with surrounding countryside. This significantly increases opportunities for wildlife to feed and breed.
We have lost many thousands of miles of native hedgerows in both countryside and urban areas in the last hundred years, speeding the decline of wildlife. So new hedges are very welcome!

Hawthorn hedge with yew planted in the gaps
Planting your hedgerow

Best time to plant your hedge whips is November – March: the dormant period between leaf fall and bud production. Don’t plant in very cold or windy weather, or when soil is frozen or waterlogged.

If planting beside a boundary, leave a gap of 1 to 1.5m because plants will grow outwards from the planting spot. This will prevent them overhanging neighbours’ property or nearby public footpaths once they mature.

Mark out 2 parallel lines with string, 40 cms apart, as the lines of your hedgerow.

Clear grass and vegetation between the lines, and beyond by about 30 cms. This will remove grass and weeds that will compete with hedge whips for nutrition and water.

Use 20 – 30 cms (max 40 cms) lengths of cane to mark the distances between the plants, along the top line.

Do the same along the bottom line, placing plants opposite the spaces in the top line – so they form a zig-zag pattern.

Plant the whips in groups of 3 or 5 plants of the same species.

Ideally use ‘notch’ planting (simple and quick) : use the spade to cut a 15 cms deep T–shaped notch.

Peel back the corners of the notch and place the whip into the point where the corners met.

Release the corners and firm them back down, around the whip, ensuring it is stable.

Mulch around the new plants to suppress weeds and retain moisture. Don’t pile up the mulch at the base of the stems, to prevent attracting infection.

In areas with deer or rabbits, you may need to put canes and tree guards around the whips to safeguard them, and/or a post and wire fence until the hedge is well established.

In public areas you may need to fence or at least rope-off a newly planted area to prevent trampling, or accidental mowing of the whips.

In long dry spells, saturate the plants infrequently, rather than water a little and often – this encourages them to root deeply and become more resistant to drying out.

Maintaining your wildlife hedge

Cut your hedge in late February after the berries have been eaten, and when it is dormant.

After 1 year, trim off the top third of growth to encourage lateral growth, filling out the spaces between plants.

Weed around the young plants whilst your hedge establishes.

Trim lightly in late February in future years, to keep it dense and bushy. Do not prune in Spring or Summer as you may disturb nesting birds and other wildlife

Gradually aim for a hedge which slopes inwards from the bottom toward the top:
an ‘A’ shape in cross-section. This allows maximum sunlight to leaves and fruit, and to any wildflowers that grow near the hedge base.

Research* shows that if you decrease the cutting frequency from every year to once every 3 years, this will provide more flowers for early invertebrates in Spring, and more berries for birds in Autumn. If size control is an issue, cut one side one year, then the top the next year, and the other side the year following.

Dead and decaying wood is an important feature of hedgerow, so you can leave any dead branches and leaf cuttings to rot down naturally.

We hope you and the wildlife near you enjoy your native hedgerow for many years to come!

*Staley et al (2012), and Facey et al (2014) quoted by Woodland Trust.