ONE of the joys of an autumn country walk can be foraging for blackberries and hips to make a wild-fruit jelly, and sloes to steep in gin. These are seasonal delights that our gardens and allotments can provide, too, if we plant native shrubs and trees.
A native hedge can form an effective garden boundary, and we are just entering the bare root season, which runs till April, when young whips can be purchased in economical bundles from nurseries and by mail order. Deciduous multi-species hedges offer a range of food to wildlife in the form of nuts and fruits, compared with just the cover of a conifer hedge.
Hopes Grove Nurseries is a family business that stands out from the more corporate hedging-plant suppliers because of its devotion to customer care and a low-carbon footprint. The founder and keen gardener Morris Hankinson has grown the business from a “one-man band” to a nursery covering 50 acres in Kent with a staff of 18.
He and wife, Lynne, have turned their expertise to creating a range of native hedging mixtures that achieve subtly different results. Their “Bird Friendly” mix will develop into a dense intruder-proof hedgerow that can be kept at a height of 120cm or several metres. With flowers, catkins, nuts, berries, and autumn colour this hedging sits well in any plot, and provides a long season of interest as well as encouraging birds into the space.
Hopes Grove supplies a people-friendly thornless mix as well as a particularly floriferous one, and — my favourite — their “Gin Makers” hedgerow mix. The latter is predictably half-blackthorn, aka sloe, which, apart from its boozy connotations, knits a hedge together into a formidable barrier. The remaining 50 per cent is made up of other wild species that could include pear, crab apple, myrobalan plum, sweet briar rose, and cornelian cherry. All can be used to make syrups to flavour drinks or directly infused in gin.
Prepare the ground for a new hedge by removing perennial weeds, grass, and large stones, and digging in some compost or leaf mould. Plant the whips in a single row of three plants per metre or a double row of five to seven, depending on the space available and how impatient you are to create a screen. Mix up the different species, and plant each one at an angle to help fill out the base of the new hedge.
I should sound a note of caution about the space taken up by a mixed hedge. An annual cut during the autumn or winter can control the height, but it is easy to underestimate the depth of a mature hedge. Allowing for the fact that the sides should be cut with a gradual inward slope, a so-called “batter”, to allow sufficient light to the base of a two-metre-tall hedge, will easily end up being 1.5 metres thick.
In a small garden this will look wrong and leave insufficient space for other features. Here, I would clad a fence or wall with the wildlife-friendly wall shrub pyracantha, or, thinner still, a dense layer of ivy. Alas, no gin flavourings, but still plenty of nesting opportunities and berries for the birds.